Chair Yoga: Gentle, Effective Exercise for Osteoarthritis Pain

The first randomized, controlled study to observe the effects of Chair Yoga on osteoarthritis reports many benefits for people with joint pain and stiffness. Learn more about the study and how you can reduce pain exercising in a seated position.

chair yoga for joint painNew study finds many benefits for people suffering from osteoarthritis. Results of the study showed pain reduction was nearly 10 times greater for Chair Yoga participants than for health education participants that did not engage in exercise. Osteoarthritis (OA), the most common form of arthritis in people over the age of 25, can make routine tasks like dressing and walking, extremely painful. The hallmark of OA is pain, stiffness, and swelling from the degeneration of the cartilage and bones within a joint. The knees, hips, and hands are most frequently affected and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 30 million people in the US have the condition.

Also, known as degenerative joint disease, OA often develops gradually and—depending on the severity of the problem—can limit range of motion and result in disability if significant pain and stiffness occur. Although painful swollen joints can make movement challenging, the best way to treat the symptoms and delay the progression of OA is with regular exercise.

If you have OA and avoid exercise because you’re worried about exacerbating the pain or getting injured, you may be making the problem worse.  Exercise is essential for improving joint function and reducing pain. For best results, the CDC recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical activity 5 times a week. (Note: the 30 minutes can be broken down into shorter sessions throughout the day if that works better for your lifestyle.)

If exercise is not a part of your daily routine, you may want to start with a modified form of yoga known a Chair Yoga. As the name suggests, Chair Yoga takes place in a chair so there’s no getting up and down from a yoga mat on the floor. It is a gentle style of an ancient practice that incorporates many of the mind-body benefits of traditional yoga, including stress relief and improved strength and flexibility.

Chair Yoga Relieves OA Pain, Study Says

A recent study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society tested the effects of Chair Yoga on osteoarthritis1 and found it to be a safe and effective alternative pain management solution for aging adults with the condition. The study specifically examined Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga, developed by Kristine Lee for an earlier pilot study of Chair Yoga. This type of exercise can be performed either sitting in a chair, or using the chair for balance.

The 131 adults included in the study, age 65 and older, were assigned to either Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga or a health education program. Study participants attended 45-minute sessions twice weekly for 8 weeks. Pain, pain interference, gait speed, fatigue, and functional ability were measured at the end of the study. Chair Yoga showed a significantly greater decrease in pain and pain interference both at the completion of the study and 3 months later. The decrease in pain interference was nearly 10 times as great for Chair Yoga participants than it was for health education participants.

Chair Yoga participants also saw reductions in fatigue and improvements in gait speed. The primary aim of Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga is to provide a safe form of yoga that can be practiced by anyone while providing the same benefits of traditional yoga for pain management. 

How Chair Yoga Reduces Joint Pain

For many patients with osteoarthritis, yoga is the preferred exercise modality. In a meta-analysis of 18 different studies, yoga was found to be more effective in reducing pain than “conventional exercise” for osteoarthritis.2

In an interview with Practical Pain Management, Joseph Ruane, DO, explained how yoga can help people with osteoarthritis mange their pain. “Motion is lotion for arthritis,” says Dr. Ruane. “Immobility will increase stiffness and by proxy pain around the joint.” Dr. Ruane explained that in the case of OA, the tissue and collagen surrounding the joint changes and becomes less compliant over time. This stiffened tissue then squeezes nervous system receptors, called mechanoreceptors, causing the sensation of pain. Like other forms of exercise, yoga works to keep these tissues supple, relieving the pressure that causes pain.  Movement activates the release of synovial fluid to lubricate the joints, further reducing pain. 

If you wake up feeling stiff, it may well be from the lack of motion during the long, overnight period. According to the Arthritis Association, physical activity is the best non-pharmaceutical treatment for improving pain and function in people with osteoarthritis.3

“I often guide patients in my practice toward exercises like yoga because they are safe and helpful,” Dr. Ruane says. Yoga not only improves strength and flexibility but it also helps with balance so many patients that practice yoga regularly say it also helps them overcome a fear of falling.

The impact of regular exercise cannot be overstated. Increased quadriceps strength alone can result in a 20% to 30% decrease in knee osteoarthritis pain. For a person living with pain, this adds up to an improved sense of self-efficacy and a better quality of life. 

To guard against injury, listen to your body. Dr. Ruane cautions patients not to push past pain. In the case of osteoarthritis, changes in the physical shape of the joint can limit range of motion. As you lose cartilage, its wise to respect your limits. Dr. Ruane says there are some ways your body just won’t move with those changes. "For people with OA, no pain, no gain, is most definitely not the case," he says, adding that Chair Yoga is great because it's accessible to everyone—even those new to regular exercise.

Moving up and down from the ground can deter older people from trying yoga but Chair Yoga removes that barrier and can be a gateway to other forms of yoga down the line.

Getting Started with Chair Yoga

Chair Yoga “builds strength and flexibility just like other forms of yoga,” says Kristine Lee, creator of the Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga method. She designed the practice to give older adults a simple and effective way to exercise.

If you’d like to explore the benefits of Chair Yoga, first consult your doctor or physical therapist (PT) to see if it’s right for you. If you’ve been cleared for exercise and would like to begin Chair Yoga with guidance, ask your PT or health care provider for a referral to local classes or instructors in your area. You can also conduct an online search for Chair Yoga classes. Local senior centers may also be able to refer you.

Look for instructors with a “Yoga Alliance Certification, at least 200 hours, with additional certification specifically for Chair Yoga or Yoga Therapy,” Ms. Lee advises. Chair Yoga can also be practiced at home. “What people love most about Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga is that they can do it,” she says.

To check it out now, see our slideshow,  7 Chair Yoga Poses for Osteoarthritis. These gentle moves were  selected by Ms. Lee for Practical Pain readers. Ms. Lee says it's best to start slowly: “Do what you can. If you feel any pain at all, stop and go to the next move. You don’t have to do every pose. Listen to your body." If possible, practice Chair Yoga at least two times each week. “Sometimes just a few 15-minute sessions are enough,” Ms. Lee says.

When your joints are in pain from OA, exercise may be the last thing you want to do but its important to try. If  you keep at it, little by little you'll progress in your ability and start enjoying the exercises more. Regular exercise—like Chair Yoga—may help relieve OA pain and improve daily living. 

Updated on: 07/10/18
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