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If your doctor tells you that you have osteoarthritis (OA), you might assume your days of indoor cycling classes and lifting weights are over. With joint pain, swelling, and stiffness in your future, it's hard to imagine pumping iron at the gym -- much less peeling your achy body off the couch to drive there.

When Kathi Deresinski, 57, was first diagnosed with osteoarthritis, she was a runner and aerobics teacher. Her condition quickly put the brakes on her active lifestyle. "The pain was so severe it hindered my teaching, it hindered my ability to walk," says Deresinski, who currently teaches in the Health, Sport & Exercise Science Department at the Chicago-area Triton College.

Deresinski soon learned that -- not only should you exercise when you have OA -- it’s one of the most important things you should do to stay active. "I came to realize that you can maintain your activity level," she says. "You have to modify it, but it doesn't mean you can't do something."

Keeping Active With OA

"There's an old myth that if it hurts, don't do it," says Patience White, MD, vice president for Public Health at the Arthritis Foundation, and professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. In reality, she says, the opposite is true. "If you do the right low-impact exercises, you can actually reduce pain."

Exercise protects the joints by strengthening the muscles around them. When you have strong muscles, they absorb the extra force that your joints normally would take. Plus, moving the joints keeps them fluid and limber.

"Staying active maintains not only the strength of the muscles around the joint, but also lubes the joint," explains Audrey Lynn Millar, PT, PhD, an exercise physiologist and professor of Physical Therapy at Winston Salem State University, and author of Action Plan for Arthritis. "The way we get nutrition into our joints is by contracting and relaxing them, which we do through movement."   

Getting too much rest is counterproductive when you have osteoarthritis because it de-conditions your muscles and joints. "The idea of just becoming a couch potato is not correct. We want people to be up and moving their joints," says David Borenstein, MD, clinical professor of Medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center.  

When you're not active, not only do your muscles get weaker, but you also gain weight. "For every pound you gain, it's the equivalent of four pounds across each knee," White says. Being just 10 pounds overweight puts about 40 extra pounds of stress on your knees with every step you take.

OA Exercises

Our experts say a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises is ideal for keeping joints strong and limber. Studies find that lifting weights or using resistance bands not only improves muscle strength and function, but can also reduce OA pain. Flexibility exercises that move each joint through its entire range of motion can alleviate joint stiffness, Millar says.