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Will exercise help my osteoarthritis?

Regular exercise can help:

  • strengthen muscles that support joints
  • increase flexibility
  • reduce joint pain and stiffness
  • improve your ability to perform daily tasks
  • increase your sense of well-being
  • reduce insomnia and improve your sleep
  • improve your memory and concentration
  • increase your self-esteem
  • help you feel more confident
  • reduce anxiety
  • increase sexual desire
  • increase your stamina
  • help you maintain your ideal weight

Some people can't imagine exercising when they have arthritis. You might believe exercise would just make your arthritis worse, since even simple moves hurt so much. However, being inactive actually increases your stiffness and can increase joint damage and deterioration. If you don't exercise, the muscles around your joints will become small and weak. Weak muscles can't protect and support your joints. In addition, if you keep a painful joint in a bent position, you may lose the ability to move and straighten it.

Moving your joints, on the other hand, nourishes your cartilage. Exercise keeps your joints more flexible. It can help you stay independent by allowing you to do daily tasks. It can also help you avoid the feeling of depression that is often associated with arthritis. So learning to be more active can help ease your pain and manage your condition. Work with your doctor or a physical therapist so that you know how to reap the benefits of exercise without increasing your pain. If you have problems making exercise a priority, see Overcoming Exercise Barriers.

What's the right exercise?

The best exercise program for a person who has arthritis includes the 3 main types of exercises: flexibility or stretching, muscle toning, and cardiovascular, or aerobic, exercises. The type and amount of exercise for each person who has osteoarthritis will vary depending on their physical conditioning, which joints are affected, and the condition of the joints. Your doctor, together with a physical therapist or other exercise professional experienced in osteoarthritis, can design an exercise program for your specific needs.

Flexibility or stretching. These exercises are beneficial to maintaining or improving your range of motion and normal joint function. They also help to relieve joint stiffness and reduce the chance of joint injuries. You should practice these exercises daily, using gentle movements. Do these exercises before you do any other kind of exercise so that you warm up the muscles and joints for the activity to come. Stretching after you exercise can also help prevent you from being sore the next day.

Muscle toning. These exercises help strengthen the muscles around the joints of your arms and legs. They also help the muscles to work longer so that you build endurance. For these exercises, you need to work the muscles against resistance, such as free weights or elastic bands. Most people who have osteoarthritis start with small weights, such as 1- or 2-pound dumbbells. You can do these every other day.

Cardiovascular, or aerobic, activity. Low-impact aerobic activity can greatly benefit people who have osteoarthritis. Some research shows that aerobic exercise may decrease inflammation in some joints. Aerobic exercise also helps to reduce excess weight, which can harm joints with osteoarthritis. In addition, aerobic workouts promote overall well-being by keeping your heart, lungs, and muscles healthy. Exercise also helps to lift your mood.

Most experts recommend 30 minutes of daily or near-daily aerobic activity. Low-impact exercises such as swimming or water aerobics are often well tolerated by people who have osteoarthritis. You can also use machines, such as a treadmill or stationary bicycle. If 30 minutes seems too long or you can't afford to use that entire block of time, exercising 3 times during the day for 10 minutes at a time can provide some of the same health benefits. Be sure to warm up before each exercise session and cool down afterwards with flexibility exercises.