Can I Play Sports if I Have Arthritis?! 5 Patient Stories of Arthritis and Sports in 2021

arthritis and sports

Have you been told arthritis and sports don’t mix? If so, I’m glad you’re here. High impact activity is actually possible, even if you have arthritis! Many times, the first thing you hear with a diagnosis of osteoarthritis is you also have to give up all high impact activity. BUT, according to the research, high impact activity is actually good for our cartilage if our joints are appropriately prepared! This makes sports like tennis, golf, running, skiing, and others totally possible. This is what Keep the Adventure Alive is all about, showing you that you don’t have to rule out adventure just because of an arthritis diagnosis, even if it feels that way now. 

Are sports bad for my joints?

One of the main reasons you may be told to avoid sports if you have arthritis is the nature of the sport itself. Many sports include jumping, changing directions quickly, running, and other stressful movements, especially for the legs. We are typically told, no high impact activities in fear of creating more damage in our joints.

But, as it turns out, avoiding high impact exercises can actually do more harm than good! High impact exercises like jumping are a powerful way to build stronger joints. There has even been research pointing to the fact that jumping (read our in depth article on jumping here) can increase cartilage strength.

One study from 2015 looked at the effect on jumping and cartilage integrity with those with mild osteoarthritis. The quality of the cartilage behind the knee cap and in the knee joint itself actually improved with jumping and other rapid movements! 😱

Another study in 2020 did jump testing with those who were diagnosed with hip or knee osteoarthritis, stage 2 and higher. They challenged people to stand and jump as high as they could. They measured the power they were able to generate. The mean age was 75, so this study wasn’t just on young people!

They found that those with decreased muscular power and jump height actually had more severe osteoarthritis symptoms. Those that could jump higher had less severe symptoms!

Sport such as tennis, pickleball, basketball, volleyball, football and soccer can be considered higher impact due to the requirements of running and changing directions. These are the sports we are typically told to avoid by doctors, surgeons, or other healthcare professionals. 

Other sports like golf, table tennis, fishing, and fencing may be somewhat of a lower impact as large, rapid movements aren’t as common. These are usually more recommended than the previous. 

But, I’m here to tell you that both types of sports are possible with arthritis. You don’t have to give up your sports adventures.

**It is important to keep in mind that you may need to adjust how you play these sports or have a longer recovery time compared to your younger years. 

Benefits of Arthritis and Sports

There are many reasons why you should be participating in sports if you have arthritis but here are the 3 main reasons in my opinion! These are also discussed in the video above! Let’s take a deeper look: 

  • Sports typically have a high degree of social interaction. I know you may have been thinking the first reason was going to be physical! Social connection can be extremely beneficial if you have arthritis. Arthritis can feel lonely, isolating, and depressing. This can have a dramatic impact on our mental health. Our motivation can begin to wane and we begin to move less- moving us into a downward spiral. Sports can be a way to connect with other people and increase our motivation to keep moving!
  • Sports help to add variety to our movement. Lack of variety is one of the biggest contributing factors to osteoarthritis in my opinion. We don’t move side to side or backwards very often; our lives are typically lived in a forward direction. Sports force us to explore new directions and new ways of moving. This allows you to stress different parts of the joint instead of stressing the same part over and over again!
    • One caveat to variety, is if you are playing a sport that requires you to do highly repetitive movements such as tennis or fencing- you will need to add in a little extra variety to even out the other movements
  • Muscle strength and power, as we saw above, can be predictive in terms of severity of osteoarthritis symptoms. When we are playing sports, we are able to build and challenge both of these things, compared to relying on simple walking for exercise. Hitting a golf ball, throwing a basketball, swinging a tennis racquet- all of these require power from both arms and legs!

5 Real Patient Stories who are thriving in sports

All of this talk about research and sports and arthritis is great but are real people able to live with arthritis and play sports?! The answer is YES. I want to share 5 stories of real clients that have found ways to thrive even with arthritis! 

Arthritis and Tennis

Leo is in his 60s and has been regularly running recreationally as well as playing tennis 1-2 times per week with his friends. He developed knee osteoarthritis as well as a Baker’s cyst behind his knee. The swelling, stiffness, and instability began to make tennis and running impossible. He became fearful of having to change directions quickly and chasing the ball down. He dealt with these symptoms for a few years before finally saying, that’s enough!

After a few weeks with Keep the Adventure Alive, he noticed a significant decrease in swelling and began feeling confident on his knee again. He was able to chase the ball down without feeling like his knee wasn’t going to support him. He even began running intervals again!

To him, sports are important both socially and physically. He didn’t want to accept that arthritis was going to take them away from him. He now will continue to build strength and power to set himself up for success for a long future of sports!

Arthritis and Fencing

sports with arthritis- fencing

Lyn had suffered a fall off of a mountain bike and aggravated her shoulder with a few sprains to her muscles and labrum. When they did the MRI, they also found evidence of shoulder arthritis because these changes are very common as we age. She had been fencing for a just a couple of years and now was unable to compete because of her right shoulder. 

While we were taking care of the right shoulder, she began to train with her left hand. She ended up winning a bronze medal in a competition! But worked very hard in the process to get her right shoulder back to competition level.

With consistency and determination, she has been able to return to practicing with her right arm. She is on the road to getting back to her dominant hand and on a path to get to Nationals! How awesome right?! 

If you’re not familiar with fencing, it is a great option for those who want to learn a new sport and a new way of moving! 

Arthritis and Hiking

Staci has always been an avid hiker and backpacker. She would go with family and friends on multiple day hikes and camping adventures until her knee pain began to slow her down. She was diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis and searching for ways to keep hiking! 

Her knee pain kept waking her up at night. She was having difficulty walking up and down the stairs in her home. She was also dealing with occasional knee swelling. 

We began working together. She built stronger legs and was able to squat down without pain in just a few weeks! She never thought that would be possible again.

Then she began jumping and starting to include running into her training without pain or swelling afterwards. Before we met, she felt like she always “paid for it” after doing these things in the past. Now, she is strong and confident. 

She has a backpacking trip scheduled this month and has been hiking- one trail was over 1000 feet of elevation gain. She didn’t experience any pain afterwards!

knee arthritis exercise pdf

Arthritis and Skiing

Shauna had been dealing with crackly, noisy knees for a few years now. Her knees started to feel unstable and she was not able to bend her knees to get into different yoga poses. 

She was also having difficulties with both shoulders. They were tight and limited in certain motions. 

She loved skiing and didn’t want to have to miss another ski season because she didn’t feel confident in her knees to support her down the mountain. She took action and sought out help to get her knees feeling confident again. She wanted her shoulders to be able to tolerate holding her poles and pushing off on flat ground.

We worked on her single leg confidence, power, and strength to reach her goals. With her ambition and commitment to the program, she was able to make a trip to Steamboat this year as well as ski in Taos and here in Utah. She didn’t experience pain or swelling afterwards. 

Arthritis doesn’t have to ruin skiing! Check out more on skiing here.

Arthritis and Golf

Steven was dealing with back pain from degenerative disc disease and occasional back muscle spasms that became so severe, he would be laid up on the couch for 2-3 hours afterwards. He played golf with his family and friends a few times a month, but couldn’t even imagine swinging a golf club when we met!

He dedicated himself to the process for 3-4 months. He worked diligently to regain his strength and confidence in being able to rotate his back again. We didn’t just stop there though, now he is consistently exercising 5-6 days a week when previously he hadn’t exercised in a few years! 

For him, sport had motivated him to get moving again. The social interaction kept him going and now he is doing better than he ever dreamed was possible!

There is hope for arthritis and sports

Through these stories and lived experiences I want you to take away two things. If you would like arthritis and sports to go together, it is imperative that you take action and stay consistent. These are the two variables that will make you successful! 

It is possible to play sports without aggravating your arthritis pain or “paying for it afterwards”. You just have to get your joints to love movement again. 

If you would like a free guide that will show you the missing links to pain relief that can help you get one step closer to sports and other enjoyable things in life, download it below!  

Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only. It should not be used to self-diagnose and it is not a substitute for a medical exam, cure, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription or recommendation. It does not create a doctor-patient relationship between Dr. Kuhn and you. You should not make any change in your health regimen or diet before first consulting a physician and obtaining a medical exam, diagnosis, and recommendation. Move Well Age Well, LLC and Dr. Alyssa Kuhn, PT, DPT are not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis or any conclusions drawn, services or product you obtain through this video or site.