What type of exercise can I do if I have osteoarthritis?

Exercise can exacerbate the pain you feel if you have osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is a condition in which wear and tear on your joints over time causes degenerative changes. These changes result in a reduction in cartilage, which can cause pain. Because of the loss of cartilage, exercise can exacerbate this pain. It is still important to exercise, even if you have osteoarthritis. You may just have to modify your exercise regimen. Talk to your doctor about different exercise options.

Consistent exercise is good for joints, even though it may cause some occasional muscle or joint pain. If you have pain that lasts more than a couple hours, reduce the intensity of your workout or take a day off. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about which activities are best for you.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Some people may not want to exercise or even walk because of their osteoarthritis pain, stiffness or swelling. But getting those symptoms under control by seeing a doctor and taking anti-inflammatory medicine can help get you moving. And when you do, exercising can help you feel better and may help slow the progression of osteoarthritis.

If you have osteoarthritis, your doctor may advise you to avoid running and instead engage in other lower-impact activities. These include:

  • swimming
  • water aerobics
  • walking (outside or on a treadmill)
  • using an elliptical machine
Eric Olsen
Fitness Specialist

If you have osteoarthritis or old joint injuries, activities such as basketball, court sports and the like might not be a good choice because the abrupt stops and starts during play could inflame tender joints. Running might also aggravate knee problems, and tennis can irritate shoulders and elbows (walking, swimming and cycling are all relatively safe for the joints). This doesn't mean you should automatically exclude any of these activities from your list of possibilities; if you think you might like tennis despite a tender shoulder, give it a try and see how your body reacts.

Lifefit: An Effective Exercise Program for Optimal Health and a Longer Life

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Lifefit: An Effective Exercise Program for Optimal Health and a Longer Life

An easy-to-follow programme for lengthening and improving lives. More than an exercise guide, this text is an effective tool for making meaningful lifestyle decisions to benefit long-term fitness. In...

A calf raise exercise helps to strengthen your calf muscles. If yoyu're looking to add more variety to improve the strength and explosiveness in your calves, try jumping exercises such as squat jumps and jump rope movements.

Dr. Geraldine M. Navarro, MD

Aerobic exercises that are good for osteoarthritis (OA) and easy on the joints include joint-friendly, low-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, bicycling and water aerobics. Avoid jolting exercise like jogging that causes the feet to pound the ground. Moderate intensity aerobic exercises that are good for OA include brisk walking, social dancing, use of conditioning machines, tai chi or yoga, sports, skiing, roller or ice skating, and doing heavy yard work. They can help slim people down as well. Aim for 30 minutes of low-impact aerobic activity for most days of the week.

For strength exercises for osteoarthritis (OA), you can choose between machines and free weights. The machines are good because they ensure proper form, provide support and isolate specific muscles. However, they aren’t designed for all body types, and they only work a single joint at a time. Free weights allow for a greater range of motion, greater diversity of exercises and improved coordination and balance. The bad thing about free weights is you can do the exercises incorrectly and cause harm to other areas.

If you have arthritis and are sore when you exercise, these pains are usually normal. Modify your program by reducing the frequency or duration of physical activity until your pain improves. You can also change the type of exercise to reduce impact on the joints. For example, switch from walking to water aerobics.

Some warning signs to consider when you are exercising are sharp, stabbing or constant pains. You should see a doctor if:

  • the pain causes a limp
  • the pain lasts for more than two hours after exercise
  • the pain gets worse at night
  • rest, medication and hot and cold packs don't relieve the pain
  • any swelling increases

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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.