Fitness Articles

Managing Arthritis with Exercise

Pain, Pain, Go Away

Does this sound familiar? "My joints are achy, I feel stiff all the time, and it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning." If there were ever a good excuse not to exercise – if there were ever a defensible time to throw in the towel – this would be it, right? Wrong!

In fact, when arthritis is a problem is precisely the time for you to get up and get moving. Exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness and increases flexibility, muscle strength, cardiac fitness, and endurance. It also helps with weight reduction and contributes to an improved sense of well-being. Taking the day (or week, month, or year) off will only make things worse for tomorrow.

So where do you go from here? How do you begin a program that helps, not hurts?

Three types of exercise are best for dealing with arthritis. Create a workout program that includes a balance of:
  • Range-of-motion exercises (e.g., stretching) for normal joint movement, relieving stiffness, and maintaining or increasing flexibility. Include at least every other day.
  • Strengthening exercises (e.g., weight training, resistance exercises, nautilus, body weight exercises) for keeping or increasing muscle strength, and supporting and protecting joints affected by arthritis. Include every other day unless you have severe pain or swelling in your joints.
  • Aerobic or Endurance exercises (e.g., bicycle riding, walking, swimming, cardio gym machines) for improving cardiovascular fitness, controlling weight, improving overall function, and relieving pressure on and inflammation in your joints. Include 20 - 30 minutes, 3x per week unless you have severe pain or swelling in your joints.
Where To Start 
Begin with easy, range-of-motion exercises and low-impact aerobics. As you become more comfortable with a low-level program, it is possible to progress to more advanced exercises. For example, you might start with water exercise (easiest on the joints) and progress to walking and/or biking or sports. Check with your doctor to learn which sports and exercises would be safe for you to try.

Things to remember while exercising:
  • Move your joints daily to prevent stiffness and loss of joint movement.
  • Exercises should be done on a regular basis. You should try to do them on good days and bad days, although you may have to modify the program if you are having more pain than usual.
  • An inflamed joint should only be moved gently through its range of motion.
  • It is important to listen to your body and not overdo it. If an exercise hurts, stop! Pain (other than normal arthritis discomfort) is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. If you get tired, rest! Wait a few minutes, then continue when you are ready.
  • Always begin a session with some slow warm-up exercises to reduce stress on the joints.
  • You should attempt to achieve a full range of motion by moving until you feel a slight stretch. Do not force the motion, going only as far as you feel comfortable.
  • Move at your own pace, performing exercises in a slow and steady motion.
  • Strength training can be done with small free weights, exercise machines, isometrics, elastic bands, and resistive water exercises. Correct positioning is critical, because if done incorrectly, strengthening exercises can cause muscle tears, more pain, and more joint swelling.
  • Most experts agree that if exercise causes pain that lasts for more than 1 hour, it is too much.
Other ways to protect your joints:
  • Avoid keeping your joints in the same position for long periods of time. To reduce stiffness, avoid prolonged sitting and get up and walk around every hour or so.
  • The strongest or largest joints and muscles should be used instead of the weakest ones, and weight should be distributed over several joints. For example, push open a heavy door with the side of your arm, not with your hand and outstretched arm. Carry a heavy bag or purse over your shoulder instead of holding it by the fingers.
  • Maintain good posture and body mechanics, keeping joints in their most stable and functional position. Bad posture can lead to possible deformities and increased pain.
  • Use a straight-back chair with a firm seat when sitting. When rising from a chair, use the muscles of the legs while also pushing off of the arms of the chair with palms or forearms (not fingers).

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Member Comments

  • Good information. Thank you.
  • Thank you for this article. I am riddled with arthritis and this is very helpful to me.
  • I have the most stiffness in my ankles and the arch in my foot. Often my ankles feel like they need to be rotated or pulled to pop into place. And if I stand for more than 20 minutes, both my feet and ankles will start to ache. I'm not sure if this is due to arthritis or my weight gain. Hopefully, either way, with diet and exercise, this issues will reduce and go away.
  • I do have trouble with Mr. Athiritis since an accident in 2011 and I have to keep moving. Thank you for your blog. A REINSPIRATINAL BLOG
    A very helpful article for so many of us out here trying to do our best.
  • I have Ra and lupus are there exercies that can be done.
    I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and was put on the drug femara. It has caused severe bone and joint pain and a lot of mornings it's quite difficult to get out of bed. My son who works out everyday told me that I would feel better if I could get into exercising. This article convinced me! Thanks!
  • The reason that I finally put myself on an exercise plan was because I hurt all over. I have arthritis in most joints and my back, tendonitis in wrists, elbow & foot, plantar faciitis & heel spurs, bulging discs, chondromalacia patella etc etc etc. Of course I still have issues but they are much more manageable and I am able to do much more (including walking) with much less pain.
  • Thanks for sharing
  • ok I have really a question more than a comment. Does anyone know if you can do the floor exercises on a regular bed or do you have to have a hard surface?
    I know I have to move to help with my arthrist but some days the pain is so intense but these are the days I make myself move. I try to break my workouts up with swimming some times during the week if I can. But pain is pain it does not go away.
  • OK, I finally understand I need to move more in spite of the pain. Spark impresses me with the number of people working thru pain. Feel less alone with my misery, and much more optimistic. THANKS
  • This is a wonderful article with sound advice. I was pleased to have it confirmed that I was doing things right. After surgery and therapy for osteoarthritis in my shoulder, along with many complications during the surgery, I found a stretch and tone class that featured all the exercises I had been given in therapy for the shoulder replacement as well as a knee replacement and it has made all the difference. Years ago I had also had back surgery, after suffering a shattered vertebra in a fall from a horse. Three fused vertebra and two stainless steel rods in my back. At that time I wasn't given any therapy. Nearly 30 yrs ago. But since starting the exercise program three days a week, for the last 6 months, I am so pleased to report, there has been an amazing improvement in what I can do. Even getting up and down off the floor after not being able to for years! I also have nearly a full range of motion with my shoulder. My surgeon was surprised at my range of motion. He had warned me, I probably wouldn't come all the way back with range of motion, but at least the shoulder pain would be gone. Well with Gods help and a lot of work I have come back and life is good!
  • I really liked that this article made no reference/assumpt
    ions on age. I was diagnosed with arthritis when I was 16 and getting active in the last few years has really made a huge difference with my pain management. So many people assume that arthritis is a condition only older adults can have so I appreciate the author refraining from that.
  • Sound advice for me, especially because I am elderly. I have always wondered about what inflamed joints feel like. How can you tell (since we do not have x-ray vision) that it is inflammation that is going on? I have wondered about this so long I hope someone who can answer this will message me. I feel sore and stiff for a few days after an exercise session; wonder if that is inflammation or totally something else.

About The Author

Jen Mueller Jen Mueller
Jen received her master's degree in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati. A mom and avid marathon runner, she is an ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, medical exercise specialist and behavior change specialist. See all of Jen's articles.

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