An Exercise Fix for Knee Osteoarthritis

How exercise helped an outdoorsy senior regain his mobility and go bird-watching again.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
3 min read

Jerry Wade used to love bird-watching with his wife, an avid birder. "I'm not a birder myself, but I like being active and getting out there with her," he says. "Bird-watching puts you into natural areas and some rough terrain -- it's not an easy physical activity."

But in the fall of 2005, the 66-year-old Columbia, Mo., resident, who had retired in 2000 from a career in community development, started noticing "pains and twinges" in his knees. A visit to his doctor in January 2006 brought the diagnosis: osteoarthritis of the knees. Fortunately, Wade had a friend at the nearby University of Missouri, who told him that researchers there were testing exercise regimens for people with the condition. Wade signed on. He embarked on a supervised aerobic-exercise program three times a week and then added strength-training.

Years ago, Wade might have been told to sit back, relax, and take it easy and cautioned that exercise could put too much strain on his damaged knees. But starting in the mid-1990s, a body of study findings indicated that exercise is one of the best things you can do to alleviate the pain and functional limitations of knee and hip arthritis.

"People's pain levels go down, and they also report functional improvements in activities like climbing stairs, getting in and out of chairs, and walking speed," says Marian Minor, PhD, PT, chair of the department of physical therapy at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions and a nationally known expert on arthritis and exercise.

Of course, a bit of caution is warranted: If you have arthritis, you want to avoid joint injuries, so that means no contact sports or strenuous activities with a high potential for impact on the joints, such as skiing. But walking, biking, and low-impact aerobics have been extensively studied and show great results for people with arthritis.

Wade is living proof. "Within three months of starting the program, I was having almost no pain," he says. "I could walk up and down stairs with my knees not tightening up. I could go out birding with my wife again.

"I'm totally sold on exercise."

The Exercise: For someone with knee osteoarthritis, exercises that require deep knee bending aren't a good idea. Instead, do a modified squat that doesn't take you down as low. Stand in front of a straight-backed chair and slowly squat as if you're going to sit in it. As you squat, your knees should remain over your ankles -- don't let them move forward past your ankles. Stop if you feel any pain. Depending on your level of fitness, you might start out doing five semi-squats three times a week, then move up to 10.

The Benefit: "We call this a functional exercise," says exercise expert Marian Minor. "It gives you an improved range of motion, improved strength, and improved muscular endurance, which we think helps protect the joint from injury."

Originally published in the March/April 2008 issue ofWebMD the Magazine.