Cooped up? Make sure your muscles aren’t.
All of us staying at home more can help stop the spread of COVID-19 by limiting exposure to the virus. But doctors warn that this is not the time to stop moving; it’s important to keep your body going, and stretching muscles to help avoid joint pain.
“When people are at home, they might find themselves sitting for longer periods of time,” Daniel Wagner, D.O., a Board-certified orthopedic surgeon with Texas Hip and Knee Center, explains. “Arthritic joints will end up getting stiffer from sitting longer, and can end up getting more sore when they do get out. That’s going to be uncomfortable for them.”
Moving your body is important for anyone, but can be particularly helpful for people who live with arthritis or joint pain. During this pandemic, Wagner stresses that people need to do what they can at home to stay limber, including:
Stretching your hamstrings
The hamstring muscles (located around the back of the thigh) are often tight and create an imbalance that can result in pain or limping. Sitting with knees bent, while comfortable, can cause the hamstrings to contract even tighter, making it hard to bring the knees to a straight position. “Often, when the hamstrings are properly stretched, much of your knee pain can improve,” Wagner says. To maintain flexibility, here are stretches to do every day:
- Sitting hamstring stretch: While in a sitting position, keeping your back straight, reach for your toes. Hold for 15-30 seconds, and repeat three times. (If you have back or sciatica pain, this exercise may cause pain, so proceed with caution.) You can also roll up a towel and put it under your foot while sitting and try to push your knee to the floor. “This can be done in small increments while reading or watching TV,” Wagner says.
- Standing hamstring stretch: While standing on your feet, lean over carefully and try to reach your toes. Hold for 15-30 seconds and repeat three times.
Strengthening your quadriceps
“Commonly, it’s necessary for people to strengthen their quadriceps,” Wagner expresses, especially for people who experience knee pain while going up the stairs, for example. Quadriceps are muscles on the top of the thigh that work to extend, or straighten, the knee joint. To strengthen this important muscle, Wagner recommends these activities:
- Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor. Then, bring one knee out straight and hold it for 10-20 seconds. Do the same thing with the other leg, and repeat three times.
- Lie in bed and bring one leg out straight, about one foot above the bed, and hold it straight for 10-20 seconds. (This can also be done using an ankle weight, for more advanced strengthening.)
- Get up and down slowly from your chair without using your arms.
“Once these get easier, you can stand at the counter with your arms on the counter for balance only (don’t put pressure on your arms; that’s cheating) and do small squats, going down about 25-30 degrees of bend,” Wagner says. “If this is easy, then you can pick up one leg and do it one leg at a time.”
Exercising your hips
Many people have reduced flexibility in their hips because arthritis can result in bone impingement, or bones rubbing up against each other. That lack of movement can cause muscles to tighten up. To get those muscles moving, Wagner recommends:
- Gluteal stretches. The gluteal muscles, or buttocks, help stabilize your pelvis and take pressure off the hip joint. While sitting or lying down, bring your knees to your chest and hold for 10-20 seconds. Wagner recommends trying to squeeze your gluteal muscles together to tighten them, too.
- Leg lifts. While standing, bring your leg out to the side, away from your body, and hold it for 10-20 seconds. Repeat with the other leg, and do three sets. “One way to make this more difficult is to lie down on your side and lift up against gravity,” Wagner says. “Even harder would be to add an ankle weight to the leg you’re lifting.” You can repeat this same process by lifting your leg straight out in front of your body, or behind your body.
Overall, Wagner stresses the importance of staying active with exercises like walking or biking, or using machines like a treadmill or an elliptical — as long as it doesn’t hurt. “Pain is your body’s way of telling you to take it easy. Start with short distances and increase as your body can tolerate it,” he says. “If it hurts, that’s your body telling you something’s up,” Wagner stresses.
In addition to light exercise and stretching, Wagner recommends using ice, which is a natural anti-inflammatory. “This helps to constrict or decrease, blood supply to muscles and joints, which reduces the inflammatory response to the extra work.” This can be used often, he says, and doesn’t really have a time limit to it. One point of caution that he stresses: Do not use ice on bare skin.
One of the best things you can do during this pandemic? Get up and walk around for a few minutes at least every hour. Movement is key to increasing blood flow, which helps nourish cells and keep them vital. Blood flow also helps carry away waste products from your cells. It’s all important for a stronger, healthier you.
“My dad has arthritis, and I’ve been telling him to get up and stretch during commercials, at least!” Wagner says.
Want to measure your hip or knee pain? Take our joint health assessment to quickly measure your hip or knee pain and get moving in the right direction.