Most forms of arthritis cause painful swelling in your joints—the places where two bones meet, like your elbow or knee. Over time, this swelling can seriously damage joints. There are many forms of arthritis, but the most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Despite pain and inflammation, it’s possible to live a full life with arthritis. One way to enhance quality of life is through exercise. You might think it makes arthritis pain worse, but working out regularly:
- Eases pain and stiffness
- Improves movement
- Slows joint damage
- Lubricates joint cartilage
- Boosts mood
- Decreases your chance of health issues linked to an inactive lifestyle
“Exercise is an integral part of treatment and physical therapy,” says Ronen Marmur, MD, a rheumatologist at Northern Westchester Hospital and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. “Muscle strengthening and stretching can help to relieve shoulder pain, knee pain, and more.”
The 6 best exercises for arthritis
Adults with arthritis should slowly build up to 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week. This breaks down to about 30 minutes a day most days. Focus on low-impact exercises to help protect your joints. Avoid high-impact, repetitive motions like running and jumping.
“Arthritis pain is caused by the wearing away of cartilage, the body’s natural shock absorber for the joint,” says Benjamin McArthur, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee and hip joint reconstruction at Texas Orthopedics in Austin, TX. “Low impact exercises keep the body healthy and the joints mobile while avoiding excessive stress on vulnerable arthritic joints.”
Walking is a low-impact aerobic exercise that’s easy on the joints and can reduce pain, such as knee pain. Try to stay in the moderate-intensity zone, which means you should still be able to talk while exercising.
2. Strength training
The muscle that’s developed with strengthening exercises helps to support and protect joints, including knee joints. Two to three strengthening sessions a week are all people with arthritis need to increase and maintain strength. Remember to rest for a day between workouts and longer if you have pain or swelling.
Whether it’s indoor or outdoor, the repeated motion of cycling is shown to help arthritic joints. When a joint moves through its full range of motion during cycling, the body makes synovial fluid, which cushions the ends of bones and decreases friction during movement.
4. Water workouts
Experts say working out in the water is one of the best arthritis exercises, including for arthritic hips and knees. It boosts the heart rate and relieves pain and stiffness. Pools designed for people with arthritis also have warmer water (an ideal temperature is 83-90 degrees Fahrenheit) and special ramps to make it easier to get in and out.
5. Lifestyle activities
The gym isn’t the only place to get exercise. Activities around the house like raking leaves, walking the dog, and gardening get the heart pumping while putting less stress on joints. These activities also allow people with arthritis to get short bursts of exercise and then rest.
6. Mind-body exercises
The slow stretching movements of mind-body practices, such as yoga or tai chi, also show promise for easing arthritis pain, such as hip arthritis.
“Tai chi has been shown to be an excellent form of exercise for people with arthritis,” Dr. McArthur says. “It fosters improvements in strength, flexibility, balance, and positive thinking, all of which can go a long way toward optimizing joint function and limiting arthritis pain.”
When it comes to exercising with arthritis, doing too much too fast can result in more joint erosion. Here are some safe exercise tips:
- Start slowly. Too much activity during an arthritis flare can cause more pain, inflammation, and joint damage. Talk to a healthcare professional first to come up with an exercise program. Begin with a few minutes of activity, then rest for a bit. Continue this pattern and then work up to longer workouts.
- Protect your joints. Avoid activities and repeated movements that put too much stress on joints. For example, slower walking is best for arthritic knees. Another idea: shock-absorbing shoes or inserts.
- Tailor exercise to your needs. Everyone has different levels of pain, stiffness, and joint damage. Choose an activity that lowers your odds of injury and that you’ll stick with over time.
People with arthritis may also benefit from the guidance of an expert. Physical therapists (PTs) create physical activity programs unique to each person and check joint motion, muscle strength, and stamina.
Exercise and arthritis medication
Arthritis medications are generally safe and help to relieve pain. They come as over-the-counter or prescription oral drugs, injections, and creams or gels applied to the skin.
There’s no evidence that these medications negatively impact exercise. Though, they do have side effects when taken frequently, especially for people with kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease, a history of gastric ulcers, or severe acid reflux. That’s why it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider before taking an arthritis drug—and when adding exercise to your daily routine.