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Don’t let arthritis slow you down

Tai chi can reduce pain, stiffness and fatigue. / Eric O'Connell, Getty Images

For the first time in 40 years, the incidence of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is on the rise, researchers at the Mayo Clinic say. An estimated 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with it. RA is a form of arthritis that occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks the membrane lining your joints (often in the hands, wrists and feet), causing pain, swelling and stiffness. No one really knows what causes RA or how to cure it. Most people with the disease take a combination of medications. But just as pivotal in the treatment of RA are lifestyle changes you can make to also help reduce pain and slow, or even stop, joint damage. Here are a few simple strategies (some of which may surprise you):

Do 20 minutes of cardio daily. It may be last on your priority list when your joints hurt, but it’s actually one of the best things you can do to preserve mobility. A new study published in Arthritis Care & Research shows that with a little aerobic exercise every day, you’ll reduce pain, move more and live better. Just keep the pace moderate, take breaks when you need it, and stop if you feel any new joint pain. Walking, water aerobics and even biking are good choices.

Cut calories. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that up to 30% of overweight and obese Americans have arthritis. Extra weight puts extra strain on joints, which puts you in extra pain. Though some research suggests consuming fish oils may reduce joint inflammation, it’s most important to focus your diet on a healthy mix of fruits, vegetables, protein and calcium — and count calories to keep the scale in check.

Try tai chi. This ancient Chinese form of meditative therapy reduces pain, stiffness and fatigue, and it improves balance in those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, according to preliminary research presented at this year’s American College of Rheumatology annual meeting. Tai chi combines slow, gentle movements and stretches with deep breathing and relaxation to build strength and flexibility. To find a class, contact your local YMCA, health club or senior center.

Reconnect with your spouse. You’ll feel less pain and enjoy a better quality of life if you’re in a happy marriage, according to new research. Previous studies have found that married people with RA show less disability than unmarried patients. But the new study showed the strength of the relationship actually makes the difference. Researchers talked to 255 adults with RA, and found that those in supportive marriages had less physical and psychological disability. For those in distressed relationships, study authors suggest improving communication and coping skills through couples therapy might boost health for the RA patient.

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