Question: I did strength training for nearly 40 years, but unfortunately a lifetime of joint, tendon and spinal damage now makes it incredibly difficult to do any kind of exercise. Even walking and standing involve moderate to severe pain. Can you provide any advice on overcoming pain to allow one to strengthen, or on any training that doesn’t put strain on knees, hips, spine or shoulders?
Answer: Congratulations on a lifetime of physical activity. Your diligence and resolve are applauded. Your question was posed to Lisa Resutek, DPT, a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer who works with Emory University. She said, “There are a number of safe, joint-friendly and effective ways to strength train and exercise as you get older. One of the best is isometric exercises.” Isometric is defined as muscular contraction against resistance. Such activity does not shorten muscle fibers, as strength training does, and it increases muscle tone.
Resutek gave an example. “For your bicep, bend your elbow to a 90-degree angle. Place the palm of your opposite hand over the distal part of your forearm. With about 50% of your strength, try to bend your elbow beyond the 90-degree angle while resisting with the opposite hand (remember that this hand is pushing downward). Hold the contraction for a few seconds, then relax. Repeat for a few sets. This gets your muscles to ‘fire’ but not ‘move,’ which results in increased muscle tone and leads to progressive gain in muscle strength.” There are similar isometric exercises for each major muscle groups in the body.
She also suggests finding a gym or aquatic center that offers water aerobics classes. “You can find pools that increase the water temperature to therapeutic levels, allowing your muscles to relax. Exercising using the buoyancy of water takes away the stress of the exercise on your joints.” Resutek also is an advocate of Silver Sneakers, yoga and basic tai chi, all of which will limit the amount of stress placed on the body. “With any type of exercise,” she said, “remember to start slowly and that beginning exercises should be comfortable, not painful.”
Our expert: Jackson Rainer is a board-certified clinical psychologist who practices with the Care and Counseling Center in Decatur, Georgia, helping people living with chronic illnesses. He consults with a variety of experts to answer a selection of readers’ questions in each issue of Pain-Free Living.
Have questions about living with and managing chronic pain? Email questions to [email protected]. Please put “PFL Q&A” in the subject line.