The Skinny on Diet, Exercise and Arthritis
Are you confused by diet and exercise advice? If so, you’re not alone. From fad diets to influencers touting the benefits of specific exercise routines, there’s no shortage of online tips for losing weight, getting fit, and feeling healthy. Thanks to social media, everyone’s an expert and advice is only a scroll away. But how do we separate good advice from people looking for personal financial gain?
Throughout history, many have been duped by fad diets and exercise regimes and that trend isn’t going away anytime soon. Sifting through diet industry noise is no small feat. However, it’s extremely necessary for people living with chronic inflammatory diseases like arthritis because food and fitness levels play a role in controlling inflammation and other symptoms like pain and fatigue.
The Role of Research
Research is one reason why diet advice is always changing. Nutrition is a fairly young area of research and new findings often replace older ones, making it hard to keep up. Even Canada’s Food Guide has been revised several times since its original publication in 1942.
Most recently, the guide underwent a massive overhaul in 2019 after decades of focusing on the four food groups. It now emphasizes eating more plants and less meat and dairy. In fact, according to the new guide, 50 per cent of a person’s plate should include fruits and vegetables and the other half, whole grains and proteins. Water should always be the drink of choice and the guide no longer recommends complicated serving sizes.
Several studies have revealed a connection between foods high in saturated fats and inflammation, so the shift away from meat and full-fat dairy makes sense for people living with arthritis.
Arthritis Research Canada has also conducted research on the impact of specific diets on a person’s likelihood of developing gout, the most common type of inflammatory arthritis. Scientists analyzed 26 years of data and found a decreased risk of gout in people who followed the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension or “DASH” diet. Like Canada’s new and improved Food Guide, DASH emphasizes increased consumption of fruits and vegetable and low-fat dairy products.
Diet: It’s the Foundation for a Healthy Life
Being overweight is a major risk factor for many types of arthritis. So, consuming a healthy diet, like that outlined in Canada’s Food Guide, plays an important role in preventing arthritis and controlling symptoms after diagnosis.
A recent Arthritis Research Canada study also linked excess weight and genetics to an increased risk of gout. Researchers found that obese women were 3-times more likely to develop gout and men were 2.2-times more likely.
“You can’t change your genetics but, while not always easy, maintaining a healthy body weight could reduce your chances of being diagnosed with this painful disease down the road, especially for women,” said Natalie McCormick who is a trainee at Arthritis Research Canada.
Having higher amounts of fat tissue also puts people at risk for osteoarthritis, according to Arthritis Research Canada Research Scientist, Dr. Jackie Whittaker. She studies the risk of knee osteoarthritis after sport-related knee injuries.
“Despite an incredible amount of research, scientists do not know the exact cause of osteoarthritis, but they have identified risk factors,” Whittaker said. “These include previous joint injuries, high levels of fat tissue, weak muscles around the hip and knee joints, a genetic predisposition, abnormally shaped joints, and being female.”
Looking to launch a healthy eating routine?
Download some healthy recipes provided by a member of our Arthritis Patient Advisory Board.
Movement is Medicine
Exercise is essential for people living with arthritis. It improves health, strengthens the body and mind and reduces inflammation.
Arthritis Research Canada Research Scientist, Dr. Susan Bartlett, often says, “Exercise is important for everybody, but if you have arthritis, it is one of the most important things you can do.”
Yoga, in particular, can be very beneficial. Bartlett’s team examined the benefits of yoga. They put people on a simple, eight-week yoga program. At the end of eight weeks, researchers saw a 20 per cent improvement across the board. People experienced less difficulty in all aspects of daily life. They also saw 20 per cent improvements with pain. Even nine months later, the physical and mental benefits were still evident.
Scientists also had study participants do 12 weeks of strength training and found it improved muscle mass, fatigue, pain and overall wellbeing. Researchers in a different study are now working to break down barriers to this type of exercise for people living with arthritis by developing helpful toolkits.
In addition to arthritis prevention and symptom management, exercise plays a role in protecting people from serious accidents as they age. One in five older adults (age 65+) living in the community fall every year and 10-15 per cent of these falls result in injuries that require emergency department visits. About 40-50 per cent of older adults with osteoarthritis are physically frail, which increases the risk of falls.
There is evidence to suggest the Otago Exercise Program can help prevent serious falls in older adults. A team led by Senior Scientist, Dr. Linda Li, is developing and testing a new strategy for physiotherapists to better support older adults to continue with Otago over time.
Finally, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in people with arthritis. Yet, many are not aware of the connection. People are at the highest risk for heart attacks, strokes and blood clots in the legs and lungs in the first year after diagnosis, when inflammation is also at its peak. In addition to finding the right treatment, staying physically active and eating a healthy diet can help to lower a person’s risk for these serious, life-threatening complications.