Top 10 Exercises for People with Arthritis

By: Robynne Boyd

A physical therapist is one option to consider when looking for ways to exercise without causing yourself additional aches and pains. See more healthy aging pictures.

People used to believe that exercise and arthritis were as compatible as oil and water. Yet research demonstrates that the opposite is true. Exercise can actually decrease joint pain and stiffness, and improve flexibility, mobility, mood and overall wellness for those with arthritis [source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention]. Though it can be intimidating for those with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia or lupus to begin exercising, when coupled with weight loss, it may be one of the best means for managing the disease, explains Patience White, M.D., M.A., vice president of public health at the Arthritis Foundation. Especially since people with arthritis are more likely to be overweight than not.

"Exercise keeps the muscles strong around a joint so that the mechanics works," explains White. "In the lower extremities, the knee is usually the first joint to experience pain for the 27 million people who suffer from osteoarthritis. If a person loses about 10 pounds and keeps exercising, they can cut the pain in their knees by about 50 percent and can even postpone a joint replacement."


But how does one begin? Before starting any exercise program, make sure it's OK with your physician. Find forms of exercise that are both low-impact -- such as biking, swimming and walking to help build strength -- and combine it with stretching, which improves joint function. "The government recommends that you do 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise five times a week for joint health," says White. "This can be in 10 minute increments, or you can do the recommended 10,000 steps daily."

Either way, read on to learn more about low-impact exercises you can incorporate into your daily routine.

10: Aquatic Exercise

Water is a fantastic medium for low-impact exercise. This is especially true when the water's warm, ranging between 83 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit (28.3 to 31.1 degrees Celsius). Submerging the body in warm water increases the body's temperature, which also increases circulation [source: Arthritis Foundation]. One of the reasons water provides a healthy place to exercise is its buoyancy removes much of the weight off your joints and muscles. Water also adds resistance for your extremities, helping build strength. Water exercise options include swimming laps, walking in place in deep water or water aerobics classes [source: White]. Hot tubs can also be therapeutic ways to massage aggravated muscles and relax after a workout.


9: Walking

Something as simple as taking a daily walk can help arthritis symptoms.
Something as simple as taking a daily walk can help arthritis symptoms.
Comstock Images/Thinkstock

Walking is the most accessible form of exercise for those with arthritis. All you have to do is open the front door and take the first step. Classified as a weight-bearing exercise, walking helps reinforce bone density by placing your full bodyweight on top of your bones and joints. It also strengthens your heart, lungs and overall endurance [source: Arthritis Foundation].

One way to get started is to follow the Arthritis Foundation's walking program, "Walk With Ease." The program has you develop a walking routine that matches your ability, provides motivational tools to inspire you along the way and teaches safe exercise techniques. If you're not interested in joining a program, simply find a friend who likes to walk. Start at a pace that will make you short of breath, but still able to talk. After a couple of weeks, increase the distance and pace, suggests Dr. White. And do buy a pair of supportive sneakers.


8: Strength and Resistance Training

The gym can be a fun and inspiring place to exercise, no matter how old or young you are. There you'll find all the equipment necessary for strength and resistance training. This form of physical activity uses weight machines, free weights and resistance bands or tubing to strengthen muscles, bones, lungs and the heart. Resistance training has the ability to improve muscle strength, physical functioning and pain in 50 to 75 percent of people suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee [source: Harvard Medical School].

There are two types of strengthening exercises: isometric and isotonic. Isometric exercise involves contracting the muscle without moving the joint, and it's particularly helpful if a certain joint lacks the ability to move. Isotonic exercise fortifies the muscle by moving the joint [source: MedicineNet].


7: Tai Chi

Strike a pose, tai chi-style.
Strike a pose, tai chi-style.
Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Tai chi is a Chinese system of exercises that dates back thousands of years. It is practiced through a series of slow moving poses originally designed for self defense and mental calm and lucidity through its graceful circular movements and breathing techniques. Though the effects of tai chi lack much scientific study, it is believed to increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, develop balance and improve range of motion. [source: MedicineNet].

There are other reasons for people with arthritis to practice tai chi, including because it's low impact, has a low risk of injury and can be done indoors or outdoors, depending on your mood. It can also be practiced alone or in groups. But if you don't know where to start, check out the Arthritis Foundation's Tai Chi Program.


6: Yoga

Also an ancient form of exercise, yoga literally means to unite or yoke. The practice unites movement and breath and can help ease stiffness and tension in muscles and joints. A caveat: Certain yoga poses can be detrimental to the joints. For example, if your shoulders cause you pain, it would be best to avoid chaturanga dandasana (the four-limbed staff pose). It's best to find an instructor that understands and can work around your special needs so as not to further aggravate and inflame your arthritis.

Note to readers: The Arthritis Foundation is currently devising a program that will prevent practitioners from hyper-flexing their joints [source: White].


5: Stationary or Outdoor Cycling

If you've been diagnosed with arthritis, you need to get moving. Staying active will help ward off pain and stiffness.
If you've been diagnosed with arthritis, you need to get moving. Staying active will help ward off pain and stiffness.

Biking is a great way to feel the wind in your hair and at the same time get in a low-impact aerobic exercise that improves the strength of your heart, hips and knees [source: Arthritis Today]. And cycling can be done indoors in the winter months on a stationary bike, or outdoors when the air is warm and inviting. If cycling is new to you, start with short time slots of at least 10 minutes. Then extend those as your stamina improves.

The CDC recommends that exercise for arthritis needs to be S.M.A.R.T., which stands for:


  • Starting low, and going slowly
  • Modify the exercise if your pain gets worse, but trying to stay active
  • Activities need to be gentle of the joints
  • Recognizing and learning safe ways to exercise
  • Talk with a health professional about any new form of activity

Now, lace up your sneakers. We're going for a run.

4: Jogging

Just because you've been diagnosed with arthritis doesn't mean running is necessarily off your list of exercise activities, says Dr. White of the Arthritis Foundation. First you'll need a good pair of sneakers and perhaps orthotics to accompany them. Next, find a place to jog where the surface is flat and relatively soft. One option is to head to your local high school during their off hours and use the track. Not only will the surface give a little when you run, it also won't have the cracks, holes or debris that sidewalks or roads tend to have. Also, do remember to incorporate stretching into your jogging routine to prevent injury.


3: Golf

Looking for an excuse to spend more time on the links? You're in luck: Playing golf can help with arthritis pain.
Looking for an excuse to spend more time on the links? You're in luck: Playing golf can help with arthritis pain.

Golf is a favorite form of leisure and exercise for many adults. And this doesn't have to change if you have arthritis. Does the name Phil Mickelson sound familiar? It should. He's a famous pro golfer who has combined medication and physical therapy to continue playing golf after being diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis [source: Arthritis Today]. According to the Arthritis Foundation, golf can "enhance the strength and mobility of your upper extremities, spine, hips and lower extremities." It can also improve your range of motion, balance and coordination. The Foundation suggests warming up before you begin playing the game, modifying your equipment so it's more light-weight and easier to tote, and changing your swing. This way, the wide open green is still wide open despite your arthritis.


2: Dance Classes

"It's a wonderful thing to do," says Dr. White. "But maybe skip the quick step." Ballroom dancing on the other hand is social, beautiful and inspires joy. But again, if dancing is new to you, begin in reasonable shoes to avoid breaking your ankle or falling.

A newly suggested form of dance to help relieve joint pain is belly dancing. That's right, much of belly dancing uses undulating movements for the arms and shoulders, swiveling the head and twisting your back. These movements aren't common in other forms of exercise or dance [source: NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases]. Now you can shake, shimmy and wiggle your way to enhance joint mobility, ease pain, increase bone strength, and flexibility of the knees and ankles [source: Enjoy the Dance].


1: Personal Trainer or Physical Therapist

Want to increase your activity level, but don't know how? Consider hiring a personal trainer.
Want to increase your activity level, but don't know how? Consider hiring a personal trainer.

When it comes to exercise, if your get up and go has left the building, it may be best to turn to a trained professional to help restore your motivation. A personal trainer or physical therapist will help ensure that your exercise routine involves strength and endurance, flexibility and range of motion. These three facets of exercise are vital for helping ease and improve the symptoms of arthritis.

When choosing a professional to design your exercise program, find someone who'll be considerate of the fact that [source: University of New Mexico]:

  • People with arthritis are frequently less active
  • Their range of motion is limited by swelling, pain and stiffness
  • Repetitive movements can become painful after time
  • Extra support and encouragement goes a long way

Ready to get started? We've got lots more information on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Arthritis Foundation. "Tai Chi Program." 2011. May 19, 2011
  • Arthritis Foundation. "Golf and Arthritis." 2011. (May 19, 2011).
  • Arthritis Foundation. "Walking." 2011. (May 16, 2011)
  • Arthritis Foundation. "Water Exercise." 2011. (May 16, 2011)
  • Arthritis Today. "Benefits of Stationary Cycling." December 2010. (May 20, 2011).
  • Arthritis Today. "Phil Mickelson Reveals His Struggle with Psoriatic Arthritis." Aug. 17, 2010. (May 19, 2011).
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Physical Activity and Arthritis." Aug. 3, 2010. (May 20, 2011).
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Physical Activity for Arthritis Factsheet." Aug. 3, 2010. (May 20, 2011).
  • Enjoy the Dance. "The Best Joint Treatment is Belly Dancing." Feb. 2, 2011. (May 19, 2011).
  • Harvard Medical School. "Arthritis: Keeping your joints healthy." 2000-2011. (May 18, 2011)
  • MedicineNet. "Definition of Isotonic exercise." Sept. 18, 1999. (May 19, 2011)
  • Medicine Net. "Tai Chi." 1996-2011. (May 19, 2011).
  • NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases. "Belly Dancing." 2011. (May 20, 2011).
  • University of New Mexico. "Training Clients with Arthritis." 2003. (May 20, 2011).
  • White, Patience, M.D., M.A., vice president of public health at the Arthritis Foundation. Personal interview. May 20, 2011.