In addition to these benefits, exercise may positively affect a common secondary condition associated with JIA, low bone mineral density (BMD). A review study conducted by the University of Hartford in Connecticut looked at 37 articles on the risk of low BMD and children with JIA. Their conclusion: Weight-bearing activities, like walking, should be a part of exercise programs for kids with JIA but more research still needs to be done to figure out the amount, duration and frequency of the activity necessary to lower the risk of low BMD.

While you’ll want your child to avoid high-impact activities, the study indicated weight-bearing activities, such as jumping rope, skipping, step aerobics and tuck jumps, do seem reasonable depending on the child. Talk with your child’s doctor or physical therapist about the possibility of adding these or other weight-bearing activities to your child’s routine and which type of these activities might work best for him.

Finding an Exercise Match 

All this glowing talk about exercise aside, finding the perfect activity for your child and getting her to stick with may not be easy. It took loads of trial and error, and a strong commitment on the part of Lynn Camino of Fort Wayne, Ind., to find an activity that her daughter, Sarah, could do pain-free.

Diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis when she was 6, Sarah is now a 10-year-old, fourth grader who enjoys horseback and bike riding, baseball, swimming for fun, bowling and moderate walking. She also likes playing sports games on her Wii when the weather keeps her indoors.

But finding the right fit didn’t come easily. Sarah tried ballet, competitive swimming and tennis but had to drop those. Satisfied with Sarah’s current level of exercise, Lynn is glad they didn’t give up. “I think it was really important to let Sarah find some activity that she could do to have a physical accomplishment,” she says.

Not surprisingly, Klepper has found that the optimal way to get kids to exercise regularly (an hour of moderate exercise daily, broken up any way) is to find something they like to do, like Sarah and Lynn did. “There are very few activities that I rule out,” says Klepper, though she’s not a fan of collision sports like football. Modifications may have to be made depending upon which of your child’s joints are involved, and it’s important to work with your doctor or physical therapist when selecting appropriate activities.

Children with multiple joint involvement, systemic or active disease will likely have a tougher time with exercise. Heading into the water may work for these kids or for those with trouble walking. Also, a tricycle or bicycle may provide an opportunity for comfortable exercise. “In my experience, there are very few kids who can’t do some form of exercise,” says Klepper.

A Family Affair 

One of the best ways to help your child with arthritis become – and stay – active is to get your whole family to buy into exercise. Kids with arthritis often feel different because of their disease. If they’re exercising solo at home, they’ll again feel like the odd one out. So getting the whole family moving should improve the likelihood of your child participating because it is a group effort.

By making physical activity a family affair, evening walks can become a cherished part of your family’s routine – offering a time to talk and bond in addition to staying fit.