What Is The Best
Exercise for Arthritis?

Arthritis is a common source of joint pain. Utilizing exercise for arthritis symptoms is a common treatment recommendation. If you are considering starting an exercise program you might be wondering what type of exercise is best. Are there any exercises you should avoid?

Strengthening Exercises

The cornerstone of a good exercise for arthritis program is strengthening exercises. Our muscles act as shock absorbers for our joints. When muscles are weak, joint stress increases. As joint stress increases, so does inflammation and pain. Conversely, when muscles are strong, they help to absorb force and minimize joint stress.

Of course, some people with arthritis pain might be fearful of beginning a strengthening program. If you have never done any strengthening exercises, consider seeking help from a physical therapist. A physical therapist will evaluate the strength of the muscles around the arthritic joints and design a program that is safe.

strengthening exercises

If you have performed strengthening exercises before, there are some general rules to follow. First, don’t just exercise just those muscles immediately around the arthritic joint.

For example, for knee osteoarthritis, the tendency might be to only focus on the quads and hamstrings. However, limited hip strength has a significant influence on knee stress. Thus, incorporating strengthening exercises for the hip (specifically the lateral and posterior hip) is important.

The general rule is to always exercise the muscles for the joints both above and below the involved arthritic joint. Thus, if you have hip osteoarthritis, strengthening exercises for the hip, knee, and core (lower back and abdominal muscles) should be performed.

A second rule to follow with strength training exercises is to go slow. Slowly develop a program, starting out with 2 sets of 10 repetitions with a weight amount that feels fairly easy. Over time, increase to 3 sets of 10. The ‘slow’ also refers to the speed in which the exercises are performed. Most people perform strengthening exercises too quickly. When exercises are performed quickly momentum and not muscle is being used, thus minimal strength gains are achieved.

Finally, do not exercise through joint pain. The adage of ‘no pain no gain’ does not apply to arthritic joints. Muscle pain and fatigue are expected but joint pain is not. If an exercise causes joint pain, modify the exercise or reduce the weight. If it continues to cause pain, consider trying another exercise that addresses the same muscles but in a different way.

Cardiovascular Exercise

Cardio exercise is an important aspect of overall health. If you have arthritis, there is no need to avoid cardiovascular exercise. Choosing the right type of cardio exercise can make a big difference in avoiding joint pain.

For those experiencing low extremity symptoms associated with knee or hip osteoarthritis, impact exercises such as walking may need to be limited. Just like choosing strengthening exercises, the cardiovascular exercises chosen must not reproduce joint pain.

Water exercise

One form of exercise for arthritis that has great cardiovascular benefits is water exercise. For those that cannot tolerate weight bearing exercise such as walking, water exercise provides an alternative. Whether it is a formal arthritis exercise class or simply walking in the water, exercising in water reduces lower extremity joint stress. Performing water walking with the water above waist level will minimize joint stress and provide additional resistance making the exercise more difficult.

A final type of cardiovascular exercise that is excellent for hip or knee osteoarthritis, is a stationary bike. Repetitive easy motion helps to lubricate arthritic joints. The repetitive motion from a stationary bike can greatly help to restore mobility and improve joint lubrication making it one of the best forms of exercise for arthritis. Be cautious not to utilize too much resistance as the ‘pain free exercise’ rule applies to cardiovascular exercise as well.

Numerous research studies have proven that exercise for arthritis is an extremely effective form of treatment for reducing both reducing joint pain and improving function. An effective program must include both strengthening and cardiovascular exercises. Consult a physical therapist if you don’t know what exercises would be best for you but the most important thing is to be consistent with your exercise program.


Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2012 Apr;64(4):455-74. American College of Rheumatology 2012 recommendations for the use of nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic therapies in osteoarthritis of the hand, hip, and knee. Hochberg MC, Altman RD, April KT, Benkhalti M, Guyatt G, McGowan J, Towheed T, Welch V, Wells G, Tugwell P; American College of Rheumatology.

Am J Nurs. 2012 Mar;112(3 Suppl 1):S32-7. Rehabilitation interventions for pain and disability in osteoarthritis. Iversen MD.

World J Orthop. 2011 May 18;2(5):37-42. Effectiveness of exercise for osteoarthritis of the knee: A review of the literature. Iwamoto J, Sato Y, Takeda T, Matsumoto H.

Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2012 Mar;20(3):201-6. Epub 2012 Jan 14. Osteoarthritis year in review: rehabilitation and outcomes. Davis AM.

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