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Osteoarthritis: Exercising With Arthritis

Osteoarthritis: Exercising With Arthritis


  • Exercise may make you feel better, reduce your joint pain, and make it easier for you to do your daily tasks.
  • A common symptom of osteoarthritis is pain after activity, which may make you not want to exercise. But you can use heat and cold therapy or take pain medicines to help relieve pain and make it easier for you to exercise and stay active.
  • Exercise should be balanced with rest and joint care. If your joints hurt or you have redness or swelling, rest your joints, then try a little exercise. You might also think about using assistive devices, such as splints or braces, for a short time to protect your joints.
  • Sharp or unusual pain may be a sign of injury. Talk to your doctor if you have new pain or if your pain is a lot worse.
  • Always check with your doctor before you start an exercise program.

How to exercise if you have osteoarthritis

There are several types of exercises that you can do to help keep your muscles strong and reduce joint pain and stiffness:

  • Aerobic activity strengthens your heart and lungs and builds your endurance. For aerobic exercise, you can:
    • Walk outdoors through your neighborhood or on city paths. Or you can walk indoors on a treadmill or at the mall.
    • Do water aerobics. You might try walking in water that is up to your waist or your chest (if walking outdoors or indoors isn't comfortable for you). The water helps take the weight off painful joints. And it provides some resistance.
    • Swim at your local health club, YMCA, or neighborhood pool. Many locations offer classes designed for people with arthritis. Swimming is a great choice for people who have hip or knee arthritis, because water takes weight off the joints while also providing some resistance.
    • Bike outdoors or inside on an indoor bike.
    • Join a tai chi class. Tai chi is a type of exercise that uses a series of gentle movements.
    • Be more active in your daily routine. Vacuuming, housework, gardening, or yard work can all be aerobic.
    Note: Start slowly. For example, do 10 minutes of activity at a time, 1 or 2 times a day. Then work your way up to where you can do it for a longer time. Aim for at least 2½ hours of moderate activity a week. One way to do this is to be active 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week.
  • Strength exercises improve and keep the muscles in your body strong. Strength exercises include:
    • Lifting light weights or dumbbells or using elastic tubing. You can use these at your local health club, or you can buy them to use at home.
    • Using an exercise machine at home or weight machines at your local health club.
    Note: Before you start to do strength exercises, ask a physical therapist or your doctor which exercises would be best for you. And ask how to do strength exercises safely so you don't get hurt. Exercise books and videotapes can also show you how to do strength exercises the right way.
  • Range-of-motion exercises help keep you flexible and prevent more damage to your joints. Range-of-motion exercises include:
    • Moving each joint through its full motion. Move each joint as far as you can in each direction without causing pain, 8 to 12 times each day. Remember to do all the little joints, such as those in your fingers.
    • Long, slow stretches to keep the soft tissues around the joints flexible. For example, stretches for the legs include calf stretch, quadriceps (thigh) stretch, and hamstring (tendons in the back of the knee) stretch.
    • Exercises that target a certain joint such as the knee in order to improve motion in that joint and prevent more damage. An example of this is a quadriceps stretch to keep your knees flexible.
    Note: Exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles and joints can help older adults keep their balance, which can help prevent falls.

Several types of exercises can help you stretch and strengthen your hands and reduce knee pain and stiffness.

If you have arthritis of the knee, you may be able to reduce the stress on your knee by wearing the right shoes or by adding insoles to your shoes. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about the footwear that would be best for you.

Taping the kneecap in a certain position may also help reduce pain. If you and your doctor find that taping helps you, you can learn how to put the tape on by yourself.

If an activity makes you feel sore, try something else. You can also change how you do the activity. Here are some things you can try:

  • Rest between each exercise or activity.
  • Decrease your speed.
  • If you like to walk or swim, go a shorter distance. You might take two or three short walks in a day rather than one long walk.
  • Do a shorter workout, then rest and do a little more later.
  • Lift less weight.

Ask your physical therapist or doctor

Talk to your physical therapist or doctor before you start an exercise program. Ask what kind of exercise is best for you. He or she can help you learn the right way to do the exercise. Also ask:

  • How to exercise if a joint is sore or if a joint is swollen.
  • Whether you should take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to make it easier for you to exercise or use ice after you're done exercising. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

For more information, see:

What to do when your joints hurt

If your joints hurt, try to rest them. Use assistive devices that can help you do your daily activities with less stress on your joints. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter medicines to help reduce pain in your joints.

Other steps to help get rid of pain and stiffness include heat or cold therapy. You can use heat and cold therapies before or after exercise. It just depends on what works better for you.

For heat therapy, you can:

  • Put a warm towel on the joint that hurts.
  • Put a hot pack on the joint that hurts.
  • Take a warm bath or shower.
  • Get water therapy in a heated pool or whirlpool.

Cold therapy may relieve pain or numb an area. Use a cold pack (such as a bag of ice or frozen vegetables wrapped in a thin towel).

It's still important to try to exercise a little, after your pain is relieved. Walking is a great way to stay active. If you have pain when you walk, or if you want to switch back and forth between walking and other exercises, try walking in waist- or chest-deep water, swimming, tai chi, or riding an indoor bike.

Related Information


Current as of: March 9, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Elizabeth T. Russo MD - Internal Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Joan Rigg PT, OCS - Physical Therapy

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