Knee and Hip Exercises for Osteoarthritis

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on May 24, 2023
5 min read

If you have osteoarthritis (OA) in your knees and hips, you might wonder if exercise will help or hurt.

The right mix of physical activity can ease your pain and protect your joints. That includes workouts that’ll make you stronger, fitter, and more flexible.

Movement can ease stiffness and get blood and other nutrients to your cartilage. That’s the padding at the end of your bones. Regular exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight. Shedding extra pounds means less stress on your joints.

Talk to your doctor before you start a new routine. They may refer you to a physical therapist who’ll come up with an exercise program just for you.

Some moves are better for hip and knee OA than others. Here’s what you need to know.

Also called endurance or cardio, aerobic exercise is good for your heart, blood vessels, muscles, and lungs. It helps you burn calories, too. Choose low-impact aerobics that are easy on your joints.

Options that are good for hip and knee OA include:

  • Walking
  • Elliptical
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics

If you’re new to exercise, start slow and listen to your body. Go for a 10-minute walk around your block a few times a week. If that feels good, try 15-20 minutes the next week. Build up to 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day.

Your quads, hamstrings, and other muscles act like shock absorbers for your hips and knees. The stronger they are, the less pressure on your weakened joints.

A physical therapist can help you figure out which muscles you should target. They might give you resistance bands or small weights to work with. They’ll mostly teach you how to use your own body weight. The idea is to strengthen the muscles you already have. You don’t need to add a lot of bulk to feel better.

Here are some ideas:

Straight leg raise. Lie on your back. Bend one leg and stick the other straight out. Lift the straight leg and tighten the front muscle of your thigh. Raise your leg until your knees are at the same level. Slowly lower your leg. Work your way up to three sets of 10 repetitions (reps).

Bridges. Lie on your back with your knees bent at about 90 degrees. Put your feet and hands flat on the floor. Lift your hips up in the air. Hold for a few seconds. Slowly lower your butt. Do this 8-12 times.

Mini squats. Stand up straight with your legs about shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees a few inches. Tighten your butt when you stand back up. As you get stronger, you may be able to bend your knees enough that you’re almost sitting. Work your way up to three sets of 10 reps.

Sit to stand. Put a chair or bench up against a wall. Sit at the front of the chair with your feet flat on the floor. They should be about as wide as your shoulders. Lean forward from your hips and stand up on your own. Hold onto the arms of the chair if you need help sitting down. Work your way up to 8-12 reps.

Your physical therapist may want you to do certain exercises every day. Others you may only need to do two times a week. They’ll go over a plan with you.

It’s OK if you feel sore a day or two after you work out. If you have pain and swelling several days later, that’s a sign you’ve overdone it. Stop and check in with your doctor. They’ll let you know if it’s OK to start exercising again.

Your muscles get tight when you bend your joints for a long time. Gently stretching as far as your pain will allow can ease that stiffness.

You can stretch two to three times a week when you first get started. When you feel ready, add range-of-motion exercises once or twice a day. Warm up your muscles with a 5-minute walk first.

For your knee:

Hamstring stretch. Lie on your back with both legs straight out. Put a resistance band around the bottom of one of your feet. If you don’t have one, grab the back of your thigh. Pull your leg toward your face until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds. Slowly lower your leg. Do this three times.

Seated knee flexion. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Slide one foot back as far as you can. It’s OK if your heel comes up. Hold for 5 seconds. Do this 10 times with each leg.

Sitting knee extension. Sit in a chair. Slowly extend one leg as much as you can, or until it’s parallel to the floor. Hold for 1 to 2 seconds; lower back to the ground. Switch sides. Repeat 10 times.

For your hips:

Knee to chest. Lie on your back with your legs straight out or slightly bent. It’s probably easiest to do this on the floor. Pull one of your knees into your chest. Hold for 30 seconds and relax for 30 seconds. Do the same with the other knee. Do this up to four times.

Standing hip flexor stretch. Step one foot forward so that your feet are hips-distance apart. Bend your back leg slightly, and slowly bend your front knee, keeping your upper body upright. (Don’t let your front knee go past your toes.) Hold for 5 to 20 seconds. Repeat 10 times. You may need to hold onto a wall or the back of a chair for support.

Lying hip flexor. Lie back on the edge of a table or your bed. Let your legs hang off the side. Pull one of your knees to your chest. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side. Do two to three reps. The hip on your hanging leg is the one being stretched.

Experts used to think running could cause OA, but not anymore. In fact, some research shows it might lessen your knee pain if you have mild OA. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist first if you want to try it or other high-impact exercises. They’ll let you know what’s safe.

If you have severe OA, your doctor will likely want you to avoid these types of exercise:

  • Running
  • Basketball
  • Soccer
  • Tennis
  • Anything with a lot of jumping