Physical 

5 Helpful Exercise Tips for Arthritis Relief

October 12, 2020 7 min read

Older woman leaning on exercise ball

At a glance

So, you’ve been handed the dreaded diagnosis of arthritis. On the plus side, you finally have an explanation for the dull ache in your knees that has kept you from sleeping for the past five months.

You might be asking yourself, now what? Arthritis doesn’t just go away, right? Right. However, up to 43 percent of people over the age of 40 will exhibit osteoarthritic changes without any symptoms (1), suggesting there is more to arthritic pain than findings on an X-ray. The good news is arthritic symptoms can be managed, and the presence of arthritis does not mean you are destined to live in pain forever.

While it is a condition you have to mindfully manage, there are steps you can take to keep your symptoms under control. Today, we will focus on why exercise is key to managing arthritic pain as well as tips to ensure a joint-friendly workout.

Why is exercise important for managing joint pain?

Exercise is a must for those with arthritis. The American College of Rheumatology recommends that exercise should be the primary treatment for osteoarthritis of the hip and knee (2). Contrary to popular belief, properly loading your joints, muscles and bones does not damage them—that’s what they were built to do (3).

While it may seem counterintuitive, the less you move, the more pain you’re likely to experience, especially with arthritis. Avoiding exercise and movement, in general, weakens the muscles around the affected joints. This ultimately places more stress on the joints and contributes to more pain in the long run (4).

If you’re interested in beginning an exercise program, be sure you are cleared to do so. Check with your doctor first to make sure this is a good plan for you as different types of arthritis may warrant different treatment approaches and modifications.

Hands holding small dumbbells

Where should you start?

Beginning an exercise routine when you’re in pain can be scary. It goes against everything your body and brain are telling you; however, it's likely to make you feel better in the long run. For arthritis relief, exercise should be incorporated into your daily routine. Because of this, it’s helpful to find an activity you enjoy.

The good news is there isn’t a specific type of exercise that is required to reduce arthritic pain. In addition, people with arthritis who also exercise tend to have less pain, more energy, better sleep and improved daily function (5). Now let’s discuss some tips that will help you find the best exercise plan for you.

Helpful tips for exercising with arthritis

1. Maintain a healthy weight

Though the most difficult, weight loss is actually one of the most helpful ways to reduce arthritic pain. Obesity is associated with an increased risk of osteoarthritis of the knees as well as a faster progression of the arthritic process. For example, with each step you take, two to three times your body weight is transmitted through your knees (6). Not only will exercise help you lose weight, but every pound lost results in a four-fold decrease in the loading of the knee with each step (7). If you’re taking 4,000 steps per day, that’s a sizable reduction in the forces your knees have to handle.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that losing even five pounds will help reduce your risk of developing arthritis. You don’t have to meet your 50-pound goal to notice a difference; every little bit counts. Breaking up your weight loss into manageable increments can keep you motivated and on track. Even if you don’t meet the 50-pound goal and just lose 15 pounds, that’s a 12-fold decrease in the forces placed on your knees with every step.

2. When in doubt, stick to low-impact exercises

This is especially important to consider if you are in a lot of pain. Hopping on a bike, getting on the elliptical or walking in the pool are all great ways to move and reduce stress on your hips and knees. Keep in mind, this does not mean you should avoid walking, jogging or your favorite boot camp class forever.

In one study out of the University of Ottawa, home-based walking programs helped improve stiffness, strength, mobility and endurance as well as decrease pain. It was also found to improve quality of life and functional status (8).

Even after you start a consistent exercise program, you will continue to have good and bad days. Sometimes, instead of going for that three-mile walk you were planning, it may be better to consider a lower-impact activity like riding a stationary bike. As you exercise more consistently, you will learn when you need to slow down and listen to what your joints are telling you.

Old and young people walking together

3. Turn your everyday activities into exercise

Perhaps between going to work, doctors’ appointments and picking up the grandkids, you ran out of sunlight to go for your nightly walk. But don’t worry! Plenty of daily activities can be counted as exercise.

For example, on days that you know you won’t be able to get in a solid 30 minutes of activity, try these movements to keep your joints working:

  • Every time you go to stand up from the couch, sit back down and stand up again 10 times.
  • Every time you need to go upstairs, take the stairs sideways or backward, or go up and down the stairs three times.
  • When you brush your teeth, stand on one leg. As you swish your mouthwash around, switch legs and stand on the other one.
  • Walk on your toes from the living room to the fridge to get a drink.

The options are endless! The World Health Organization (WHO) advises adults to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, spread out over several days. That could mean five 10-minute walks over the course of a day or it could mean three 50 minute walks, depending on your comfort level.

To ensure that you’re working at moderate intensity, utilize the “talk test,” meaning you can talk at a normal speed and volume comfortably while you’re exercising (9).

4. Prioritize exercises that strengthen your legs

While aerobic activity is helpful for weight loss, mood and cardiovascular fitness, it is critical that you are prioritizing exercises that strengthen your knees and hips. One of the most common issues people suffering from arthritis experience is a decreased range of motion in the joints affected.

Activities like yoga and Tai Chi incorporate range of motion into their programming to help ease the strain on your joints (10). Walking and other weight-bearing activities will also assist with improving and maintaining joint motion. If you’re exercising from home, reference the exercises listed below to get started once you’ve checked in with your doctor:

  • Heel to bottom stretch with strap. Place a towel, sheet, dog leash or exercise band around the toes and lie on your stomach. Slowly pull your heel towards your bottom until you feel a stretch in the front of your thigh. Hold for 10-30 seconds and repeat 3-10 times (the longer the hold, the less times you should repeat). This stretch will help with your knee bending.
  • Seated knee straightening stretch. Loop a towel, sheet, dog leash or exercise band around your toes. Keeping your knee straight, gently pull back on your toes. You will feel a stretch in your calf and in the back of your knee. Hold for 10-30 seconds and repeat 3-10 times (the longer the hold, the fewer times you should repeat). This will work on increasing your ability to straighten your knee.
  • Child's pose. Start on your hands and knees. Sit back on your heels as you reach your hands forward and aim your head in between your upper arms so that you can rest your forehead on the floor (if you can!). Hold for about 30 seconds to one minute and repeat 2-3 times. This is working on your hip and knee bending.
  • Prone press up. Lay on your stomach and prop yourself on your elbows while keeping your hips firmly planted on the surface you’re lying on. You should feel this stretch in the front of your hips and thighs. If you’re feeling this in your low back, don’t prop yourself up as far! Complete 20-30 reps with a 2-3 second hold at the top if it feels good to you. This is working on your ability to bring your leg back.
  • Mini wall sits. Sit back against the wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Make sure your knees don’t go so far forward you can’t see your toes. Lower yourself down by bending your knees to a challenging, but comfortable position. Hold for 10 seconds up to 60 seconds. Repeat 3-10 times.
  • Sidestepping. With or without an exercise band around your thighs or ankles, walk sideways keeping some tension on the band. Walk around 10-15 steps one way, then facing the same direction, come back the other way. Repeat 2-3 times. Keep your abs tight so your upper body doesn’t sway back and forth.
  • Knee extensions. In a seated position, using a band, ankle weight, or knee extension machine at the gym, kick your leg out and then slowly lower back down. You should be able to do 8-15 reps, 2-3 times.
  • Leg press. This machine usually is found at a gym or fitness club. You can work both legs or one leg at a time on this machine. Rep scheme and weight selection are similar to the knee extension exercise mentioned above.

5. See a physical therapist if you’re having trouble

None of the stretches or exercises described here should cause you significant pain. While you may feel sore for a day or two afterward, nothing should cause you additional pain.

If you’re trying to exercise and just can’t seem to keep going due to significant pain or swelling, it may be time to seek professional help. Depending on the state you live in, you might need to get a prescription for physical therapy.

Your physical therapist will evaluate you and determine the types of exercises you should start with. They will also provide you with education on assistive devices to offload the pain on your joints as well as home exercises you can do. They can also help facilitate a transition to a home exercise program or help you determine what other structured activities would be okay for you to participate in, like group fitness or personal training.

In summary

While arthritis may change your workout plan, it certainly shouldn’t eliminate it. Think about it like this: With a diagnosis of arthritis, you’re also handed a prescription of regular exercise with unlimited refills as a first line of treatment.

Controlling your weight, modifying your activity and incorporating strategic exercises into your routine can help to relieve pain associated with arthritis. If you are trying to exercise and can’t seem to make it happen due to pain or swelling, however, consulting with a physical therapist may be necessary in order to get you on the right track.

Having an arthritis diagnosis is more of a lifestyle change. With the appropriate management and resources, you can live with less pain—free to carry out all the activities you enjoy.

Amanda Anderson - Physician’s Choice Contributing Writer