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Originally published Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 6:01 AM

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How to pursue an active life with arthritis

Personal Health: Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States. But with a few simple adjustments, life can be easier and less painful for the millions of people with this condition.

The New York Times

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Arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States. But with a few simple adjustments, life can be easier and less painful for the millions of people who now permit this common condition to limit what they are able to do and enjoy.

The changes can be as simple as playing with grandchildren on the couch or at a table, instead of on the floor, said one knowledgeable grandfather, Dr. Kenneth Brandt, who is also an orthopedic surgeon and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City.

The trick is to decide what activities are important to you and then modify them in ways that ease symptoms like pain, stiffness and fatigue. Arthritis may be a mechanical disability, but it need not turn people into couch potatoes.

"There's a whole body to pay attention to," Brandt said in an interview. "You shouldn't neglect everything else that's important to you and to your general health, including physical activity."

Even with relatively advanced arthritis, it is important to maintain an exercise regimen, with modifications as needed to minimize overuse of damaged joints.

"You should exercise affected joints," Brandt said. "Muscles around the joints can atrophy — use them or lose them — and result in even more pain and stiffness."

He suggested consulting a physical therapist or exercise physiologist to help design "an exercise program that permits loading joints appropriately."

SIMPLIFY KITCHEN CHORES

Let's say you enjoy cooking — or even if you don't — you have to cook for yourself or your family. In an article called "Cooking With Ease" in the magazine Arthritis Self-Management, Nancy Callinan, an occupational therapist in Minneapolis, described adaptations readily available to both ordinary and gourmet cooks with troubled joints.

For starters, why struggle to open a jar or can? Why exhaust yourself standing up for long periods to prepare food? There are tools and stools that can make the tasks so much easier.

Sam Farber, a retired entrepreneur, invented the widely imitated OXO Good Grips kitchen tools in response to his wife Betsey's mild arthritis. I own at least a dozen that have greatly eased my hours in the kitchen. Whether for opening wine bottles or slicing bread, Brandt recommends a "judicious investment" in tools designed to make culinary tasks easier.

In her article, Callinan also wondered why anyone with arthritis would spend hours washing and cutting up vegetables, cheese, meat, poultry, even garlic — when every supermarket carries food that is already washed, sliced, diced, shredded or chopped. If you must do it yourself, she advised, invest in a mandolin, food processor and/or tabletop mixer.

Whether in the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom or laundry room, frequently used items can be made more easily accessible, minimizing the amount of bending and reaching you must do. Dishes, glasses and silverware can be stored on pull-out shelves or a Lazy Susan, for example. Perhaps you can install hooks near your stove to hang frequently used cookware.

Rather than trying to lift large, heavy containers of flour, detergent or other products purchased in bulk, consider transferring them to smaller storage containers that are easier to lift and handle, Callinan suggested.

Even before arthritis became an issue, I learned to spend the bulk of food-prep time sitting on a stool. If this is not possible at your counter, consider doing your prep work on a chair at the kitchen table or on a rolling cart.

Rather than heavy ceramic or glass bowls, I now mainly use lightweight plastic or stainless steel for preparing food. Nor do I cook every day. Rather, I prepare food in batches and set aside or freeze portions for later use.

Callinan lauds the ease of meal preparation in a slow cooker, good for preparing everything from soup to dessert.

It is important, too, to pace oneself. When planning a dinner party or special event, I break up the needed chores over the course of several days. Lists help limit the number of shopping trips and last-minute excursions for forgotten items.

I also review planned recipes and list the amounts of needed ingredients (say, a tablespoon of minced parsley for one recipe and a quarter cup for another) so that I can prep them all at once.

I regard the filling as the most important part of a pie, and I long ago gave up making my own crust when I discovered how well Pillsbury does it, in a form that unrolls right into the pie plate.

Callinan suggested keeping things simple. "Your guests are coming to your home to see you, not to have a four-star dining experience," she wrote.

More and more often these days, I plan one-dish company meals like stews or casseroles, plus a salad. I serve store-bought appetizers with fruit and ice cream or sherbet for dessert.

You might also consider potluck gatherings. After all, it is the company that should make the event most enjoyable, and if each guest has to make only one dish, chances are the food will be delightful as well.

ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE

If you are uncertain about how to make needed adjustments in your routines and home, ask your doctor to refer you to an occupational therapist trained and certified to help people with all kinds of disabilities get the most out of life with the least discomfort.

I've also learned to ask for help when I need it. My hands and my OXO tool are not big enough to open certain jars from big-box stores, so before leaving the store I ask someone bigger and younger to unscrew the tops for me.

And having failed to master the art of opening those hard plastic clamshell-type packages (knives are too dangerous and scissors hard to manipulate), I plan to ask stores to do that for me as well.

"It's surprising how many people don't know they can get help just by asking for it, even from a total stranger," Dr. Brandt said.

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