What Exercise Can Do for Your Arthritis

With exercise, you strengthen muscles, reduce stiffness, improve flexibility, and boost your mood and self-esteem.

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on August 14, 2015
3 min read

If you have arthritis, exercise can help control aches and pains and even improve other symptoms. Try to stick to a regular fitness plan. Doing so can help you feel better.

With osteoarthritis, the cartilage that cushions the joints starts to wear down. This causes pain and stiffness in locations like the knees, hips, feet, shoulders, elbows, hands, low back, and neck.

"A decade or two ago, when people had an arthritis flare-up, we treated them with aspirin and told them not to get out of bed until it got better. Now we know it's much better for people to remain as active as they can,” says Kim Huffman, MD, PhD, an expert in muscles, activity, and arthritis at the Duke University Medical Center.

How does it help? You can look for these six benefits:

  1. Less pain and swelling. "When you exercise, you release feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which are like natural pain relievers," says A. Lynn Millar, PhD, chair of the department of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University.
  2. Easier movement. "As people become stronger and more flexible, they're better able to do things like get up the stairs, walk around the grocery store, and function normally," Millar says.
  1. Better blood flow. When you move and bend a joint, blood flows to that area bringing nutrients needed for strong bones and cartilage and sweeping out chemicals that cause inflammation.

    If you avoid using a joint, on the other hand, it can become even more stiff or damaged.
  1. More joint support. Exercise strengthens the muscles and tendons around your joints so they can support you better.

    These benefits add up. In one study, people with hip arthritis who did strength training and stretching twice a week were 44% less likely to need hip replacement surgery six years later compared to those who were not routinely active.
  1. Help with your weight. "Being overweight is hard on your joints," Millar says. Regular exercise is part of reaching and keeping your weight in a healthy range.
  2. Whole-body benefits. Your heart, lungs, bones, brain -- every part of you craves activity. Many people with arthritis are also at risk for heart disease and other health conditions, so it’s extra important to work on your fitness.

Once you take the first step, you may be surprised how good it feels.


Use these simple guidelines to make your workout plan.

How much: Try to be active on most days.  

Every week, get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise such as a brisk walk or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise like cycling fast.

Split up the time. You could do half an hour 5 days a week of moderate activity, for instance.

"Start with just 10 minutes at a time until you can do it for longer," Millar says. You can wear a pedometer or a fitness tracker to help you set goals and keep track of them.

What to do: If you aren’t active now, tell your doctor that you want to get started. Ask for suggestions and any limits on what’s OK for you to do.

Start with low-impact, moderate exercises that rev your heart rate, like brisk walking or swimming. Try tai chi and yoga for flexibility, balance, and strength. 

Depending on how you feel, you may not be comfortable doing higher-impact sports such as those that require running or jumping. If you've enjoyed them in the past, you can keep it up as long as you feel good and you take care not to get injured. Try to avoid high-impact activities on hard surfaces, and wear athletic shoes that are made for your sport and have extra cushioning.

What’s too much? Trust your body to let you know. Some soreness is normal when you get started, but it shouldn’t be too much.

"If you exercise and you don't have joint pain that last for more than two hours after exercise, then whatever you're doing is probably OK," Huffman says. "Any exercise is good, and something is better than nothing." Huffman says you get a lot of benefit with even a little bit of exercise. And the benefits just continue to grow the more exercise you get.


Show Sources


Arthritis Foundation.

Kim Huffman, MD, PhD, assistant professor, division of rheumatology, Duke University Medical Center; staff physician, Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Durham, NC.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Managing Arthritis Pain With Exercise."

Svege, I. British Medical Journal, November 2013.

A. Lynn Millar, PhD, PT, FASCM, chair and professor, physical therapy, Winston-Salem State University.

American College of Rheumatology: "Exercise and Arthritis."

CDC: "Physical Activity for Arthritis Fact Sheet."

Harvard Health Blog: "Exercise Is Good, Not Bad, for Arthritis."

Uhlig, T. Best Practice & Research. Clinical Rheumatology, June 2012.

Chakravarty, E. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, August 2008.

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