What types of exercise are good for people with arthritis?

Ashley R. Bateman, MD
Family Medicine
If you have arthritis, whatever exercise you can tolerate without too much arthritis pain is going to be the best type of exercise for you. Walking and swimming are excellent for most people with arthritis. (Make sure you don’t walk on uneven sidewalks, which can increase your risk of tripping and falling.) Talk to your doctor or any certified exercise specialist about any concerns prior to starting your exercise.
For people with arthritis, non-weight-bearing exercise is best, such as walking in the pool, water aerobics, swimming, biking, rowing and using an elliptical trainer.

The three different types of exercise that will help you include:

  1. Range-of-motion or stretching exercises - these involve moving a joint as far as it will go (without pain) or through its full range-of-motion.
  2. Endurance or conditioning exercises - these involve cardiovascular forms of exercise such as walking, running, biking, swimming, rowing or aerobics.
  3. Strengthening exercises - these exercises help to build strong muscles, ligaments, and tendons needed to support your body.
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More and more health professionals, as well as the Arthritis Foundation, are encouraging regular physical activity both for those with arthritis and as a means of prevention. The emphasis is on repetitive aerobic activities such as walking, cycling, and swimming. Gentle stretching to improve flexibility and range of motion is also recommended, and careful resistance training to build muscular strength is also important, as strong muscles help support the joints and protect them from injury or irritation. Indeed, resistance training for those with arthritis is proving particularly beneficial in building strength to protect affected joints before other types of activity such as walking are taken up.
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If you have arthritis, you will benefit greatly from exercise, particularly weightlifting. A study conducted at Tufts University found that people with rheumatoid arthritis could safely increase their strength by up to 60% with a modest training program. Another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association also reported improvements in osteoarthritis when patients combined weight training with aerobic exercise. Depending on your type of arthritis, the following exercises can help to keep your joints healthy: aerobics (low impact), biking (takes pressure off knee and ankle joints), knitting (hands), playing piano (hands), resistance training, stretching, swimming, Tai chi, walking and yoga.
Regular exercise can help decrease pain and improve joint function and range of motion. It's also a good way to help control your weight -- a great goal for anyone who has joint problems. Extra weight puts extra stress and strain on joints.

Typically, low-impact exercises that keep you strong and limber, extend your range of movement, and reduce weight are good for osteoarthritis. Here are some good examples:
  • Muscle training: Weak muscles are a risk factor for osteoarthritis, and they can contribute to worsening of the condition. So your physical activities should strengthen the muscles that support your joints. To strengthen your muscles, you can use exercise bands, free weights, resistance machines, or your own body as weight.
  • Heart and lung exercises: Aerobic activities that work the heart and lungs are great choices for people with osteoarthritis. And activities like walking and swimming may be particularly helpful in reducing pain and disability related to hip and knee osteoarthritis. If you have osteoarthritis that makes walking difficult, ask your doctor about aquatic exercises that can reduce weight on your hips and knees but still give you an aerobic workout.
  • Range-of-motion activities: To keep your joints limber and help maintain joint flexibility, incorporate stretching and other movements that take your joints through the greatest possible span of motion without pain. The goal is to preserve normal joint mobility, and it's move it or lose it. Good choices for maintaining and improving range of motion include tai chi, gentle stretching, or any activity that gently bends the joint.
  • Agility exercises: When you improve balance and coordination, your joints win. Not only do these physical skills help you perform everyday tasks, but also they can help protect you from falls and injury. Training on a balance board is one example of an agility exercise that boosts balance and coordination. Balance-board training may be particularly helpful for people with knee osteoarthritis.
  • Neck and back strengthening: Exercises that strengthen the back and neck are helpful for improving posture and keeping the spine in proper alignment. Strong back muscles increase spine flexibility and help take the stress off of arthritic joints. Chi-gong is a powerful yet gentle exercise choice for improving neck and back strength.
Activity has been shown to be beneficial for arthritis. Increasing the muscle strength and flexibility around a joint is protective to the cartilage. Exercises increase the ability of your muscle reflexes to aid in the protection of the cartilage as well. On the other hand, there is some evidence that higher-impact activity (such as running) can increase the rate of progression of arthritis once the cartilage has started to wear. Overall, the best activities are non-impact, such as swimming, brisk walking, cycling, etc. If you choose to run, you should try to cross-train with other activities.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.