Five top tips on navigating health advice about arthritis.

23 June 2022

We’ve all done it. You go online to find the answer to what you thought was a simple question. An hour later, you’ve visited a dozen websites, your head’s swimming with information, and you’re still not sure of the answer!

Here, we address some of the most frequently asked questions about diet and exercise for people with arthritis.

Do I need to watch my sugar intake?


It’s one of life’s little pleasures, but too much sugar is bad for your waistline and your arthritis.

Excess weight puts pressure on your joints, making pain and stiffness worse. Sugar may also increase inflammation in the body. In 2018, American researchers found that giving mice a high-sugar diet led to increased joint inflammation, even without obesity.

If you take sugar in tea or coffee, or add it to cereal, gradually reduce it until you can stop it altogether. Cut down on biscuits, cakes, sweets and chocolate.

Make sensible swaps: choose unsweetened breakfast cereals rather than frosted ones; add fruit to fat-free plain yogurt rather than buying flavoured yogurt.

Replace fizzy drinks with fruit juice mixed with sparkling water. Cutting down on sugar should have the added advantage of improving your overall diet.

Dr Sarah Schenker, a dietitian and author of the British Dietetic Association’s food fact sheet on arthritis, says: “When you cut back on added sugar, you have to cut down on a lot of processed foods, so you’re more likely to think about other, healthier things you can eat.”

Read five ways to eat well with arthritis.

Should I eat oily fish?


Oily fish – including salmon, sardines, pilchards, trout, mackerel, and herring – are the best source of long-chain omega-3 fats, which are important for overall health and can help people with some types of arthritis.

This is because oily fish contain long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and research has shown these acids can reduce inflammation and disease activity in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

It’s recommended that you have two portions of oily fish a week. This includes sardines, mackerel, salmon and tuna, though not tuna from a tin. Some eggs are also enriched with omega-3. Short chain omega-3 oils, such as flax seed, don’t have an anti-inflammatory effect.

You can also buy fish oil supplements to take, but make sure you speak to your doctor before starting these.

Health Dr Schenker says: “Mackerel is one of the richest sources of omega-3. Smoked mackerel is a really easy lunchtime option because it doesn’t need cooking. Tinned sardines or pilchards are also really rich sources.”

If you don’t like fish, consider taking a daily omega-3 supplement. Fish oil supplements are the best source as they contain the three most important omega3s – EPA, DHA and ALA. If you don’t eat fish for ethical reasons, algal oil is a good vegan source as it contains EPA and DHA.

You can get ALA in your diet from leafy green vegetables, walnuts, seeds (including linseed/ flaxseed, pumpkin, and chia) and some vegetable oils (including rapeseed, linseed/flaxseed, and walnut).

Find out more about fish oils.

Can I exercise with arthritis?


When you’re in pain, exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing. But regular exercise, of the right type and at the right level, can increase your range of movement, increase muscle strength, and reduce pain and stiffness.

Dr Fiona Chikusu, a GP and clinical adviser to Versus Arthritis, says: “We encourage people with arthritis to exercise, as there are many benefits. Weight-bearing exercises are particularly good for osteoarthritis.

If you want inspiration on good exercises that you can do from home, even from your chair. Take a look at our Let’s Move With Leon movement programme.

Alternatively, your GP can give you some exercises to suit your needs. You can also access physiotherapy via your GP. “Keeping active is very important, too – not just for arthritis, but for a healthy lifestyle. Walking, cycling, swimming and yoga are all good options.”

Read our ask the expert article: I have arthritis, should I exercise?

Should I stop exercising if I’m in pain?


It’s normal to feel some stiffness or discomfort when starting a new exercise programme. But it should settle down. Dr Chikusu says: “Your muscles may be stiff the next day. That’s expected and happens to anyone when they start a new exercise programme.

It’s just your muscles reacting in response to the exercise and it should settle down within a week. If it doesn’t, seek medical advice. The exercise you’ve tried may not be suitable.”

She adds: “Before you start a new exercise programme, check with your GP that it’s safe for you to do so. Starting a new exercise programme should be a gradual process.

For some people, even 10 minutes is enough to start with. Slowly build up when you’re ready.” If you’re exercising and the pain becomes severe, stop. “Always stop if you have any kind of severe pain,” says Dr Chikusu.

“You shouldn’t be thinking, ‘No pain, no gain’ – that’s wrong. Stop and get advice from your GP or physiotherapist.”

Learn more about exercising with arthritis.

Should I consider a vitamin D supplement?


Vitamin D helps the body maintain calcium and phosphate levels to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy. It may also have anti-inflammatory effects and a role in maintaining the health of the immune system.

Find out more about whether you are getting enough vitamin D.

This article is from our Inspire magazine, read the edition in full.

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