Tom Kellar and his wife, Colleen Fraser, from Sudbury, Ont., have always tried to stay active by going to the gym, walking, or hitting the trails on snowshoes or skis during the winter. But in recent years, pain made exercise a challenge for them both.
For Tom, the pain was particularly bad in his left knee, while Colleen had both hand and knee pain. “When you’re in pain, you’re tired all the time. It has a negative effect on your day,” says Tom, 60, who works as a sales rep. His sister had a knee replaced, so he assumed he would as well someday.

Colleen, 61, was diagnosed with osteoarthritis (OA) first, through X-rays ordered by their family doctor. Tom went through the same process himself a year ago. As a result, his chiropractor, Dr. Anjelica Mazzella at Back 2 Health Rehabilitation Centre in Sudbury, referred him to Good Life with osteoArthritis in Denmark (GLA:D) Canada, a program she teaches locally that was first developed in Denmark. After reading the course information, Colleen also decided to join the program.

The couple found themselves stretching regularly and working muscles they didn’t know they had. Within weeks, the pain associated with their OA almost entirely went away. Now they’re exercising independently — Tom uses the elliptical and weights and performs stretches; Colleen sometimes joins him but also does Pilates and yoga classes. While they exercised before, the GLA:D program had them adding in more cardiovascular exercise, plus doing it more often.

For most people, musculoskeletal (MSK) problems start with mild symptoms, such as the joint pain, stiffness and swelling seen in early OA. Discomfort can cause you to limit activity, leading to weaker muscles. You lose more range of motion and things start to increasingly hurt. “You begin using muscles and joints wrong, which makes it worse,” says Dr. Stelsoe. At this point, people may stop exercising and begin limiting their everyday activities too.

Being physically active can turn things around for those with MSK conditions.

It has to be the right exercise: controlled movements that build strength and range of motion. A combination of activities, such as swimming, cardio gym machines, weight bearing exercises and low-impact aerobics can be effective. For those whose range of motion is limited, yoga and Pilates can be helpful, along with further support from chiropractic, massage therapy and physiotherapy.

The right activity for the right person can make a big difference. With OA, for example, Dr. Antoniou says: “You won’t reverse the damage that’s occurred, but it’ll maintain the function that’s still there.” Exercise can also help slow the rate of bone loss in osteoporosis and can cause some reversal of muscle mass loss. With less pain, stronger muscles and better balance, people find they can do much more.

Latterly, Tom and Colleen took up curling. That meant kneeling on the ice and bending over to sweep, actions they would have found excruciating a year earlier. But after GLAD, Tom looked forward to the challenge.

This story is adapted from this article: Aging: How to stay active when it hurts to do so, which was produced by Globe Content Studio and published as an advertising feature in The Globe and Mail.