Start Your Own Walking Program for OA

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 12, 2024
6 min read

For people with osteoarthritis (OA), exercise is good medicine. It eases joint pain, fights off fatigue, and helps you feel better overall. Want an easy way to get moving? Try walking. You can do it anywhere, and you don’t need much to get started: Just put one foot in front of the other.

You may worry that a walk will put extra pressure on your joints and make the pain worse. But it has the opposite effect. Walking sends more blood and nutrients to your knee joints. This helps them feel better.

Walking can also:

Still not convinced? Here’s another reason: If you avoid activity, your knee OA pain will only get worse.

Although it’s a simple workout, walking brings big benefits. For starters, it can help you slim down and stay at a healthy weight. That’s important, because extra pounds place added stress on your joints. Even losing a small amount of weight can ease your OA symptoms such as pain and stiffness.

Walking also strengthens your muscles and improves your range of motion. This can help keep you moving. Case in point: Research shows that people with OA who take more steps every day keep their joints working better than those who stroll less.

Ready to get started? This step-by-step plan can help you stride toward a healthier future.

1. Get your doctor’s OK. Before you start any new physical activity, including walking, check with your health care provider. They can make sure that it’s safe for you to start and offer good advice on how to build your routine.

2. Call in an expert. If you’re new to exercise or just want guidance, try seeing a physical therapist or certified personal trainer. They can come up with a detailed walking plan for you to follow. They can also teach you the right form, along with stretches and strengthening moves, to protect your joints.

3. Pick the right route. You can walk around your neighborhood sidewalks, local park, school track, or mall. Pick a route that’s well-lit, quiet, and clear and doesn’t have too much traffic. Smooth surfaces may be safer than off-road trails if you’re new to exercise. Try these tips to avoid trips and slips:

  • Look straight ahead, not at your feet, when you walk. Try to keep your chin level with the ground.
  • Let your arms swing loosely as you walk.
  • Try not to take longer steps than feels comfortable. You can pick up the pace of your steps as you get more fit.

4. Be safe. Let your family or friends know when and where you plan to walk. If you walk outdoors or in a public place, carry your ID, a credit card or a little cash, and your phone.

5. Slip on comfortable shoes, socks, and clothing. Walking shoes should be flexible but support your feet. If you shop for shoes, go in the afternoon or evening, because your feet expand a bit later in the day.

6. If you walk outdoors, wear light- or bright-colored clothes or a reflective vest so drivers can easily see you. Wear layers so you can take off an extra shirt if you get too warm, which can happen even on cool days.

7. Start small, and build up gradually. Trying to do too much, too soon can make joint pain worse. Haven’t exercised in a while? Start with a 10-minute stroll. Even short walks will help your bones and muscles. Then add a few minutes to each walk. The goal is to work your way up to 30 minutes, 5 days a week. And you don’t need to do it all at one time. For example, three 10-minute strolls count as a half hour of walking.

See if this plan works for you:

  • Week 1: Walk for 10 minutes, 3 days this week.
  • Week 2: Walk 3 days this week, adding 2 minutes to each stroll: 12 minutes, 14 minutes, and then 16 minutes.
  • Week 3: Walk 3 days this week, adding 2 minutes each time: 18 minutes, 20 minutes, and 22 minutes.
  • Week 4: Walk 3 days this week, adding 2 minutes each time: 24 minutes, 26 minutes, and 28 minutes.
  • Week 5: Add an extra day to your routine. Walk for 30 minutes, 4 days this week.
  • Week 6: Add another day to your routine. Walk for 30 minutes, 5 days this week.

Measure your walks in steps instead of time. Set a goal to walk 6,000 steps or more each day. If you’re not there now, walk a little more each time to work up to 6,000 steps.

Pedometers can track your steps so you don’t have to count them.

8. Warm up first. It gets your muscles, heart, and lungs ready for exercise. It also boosts the flow of synovial fluid, the liquid that cushions your joints. This may help fend off pain during your walk and make injuries less likely. To get going, do range-of-motion exercises or simply stroll at a slower pace for 5 to 10 minutes. At the end of your walk, slow your pace for 5 minutes to cool down.

9. Manage your pain. You can relieve your OA pain with some smart moves before and after your walk. They include:

  • Plan on walking when you usually feel good. Are your joints stiff in the morning? Head out in the afternoon. If you take a pain reliever, go for a stroll when it kicks in.
  • Take a warm shower, or apply warm washcloths or a heating pad in the half hour before your walk. The heat relaxes your joints and muscles. 
  • Give yourself a massage. Gently rub the muscles around your joint for 10 minutes before your walk. This boosts blood flow to the area.
  • After you exercise, ice your joints for up to 20 minutes. This can relieve any swelling.

10. Add new challenges. When your walks feel too easy, it’s time to kick things up a notch. You can add speed with intervals: Stroll at your usual pace for 1 minute, and then walk faster for the next minute. How do you know if you’re walking fast enough to get the health benefits? Do a quick heart rate check.

When you’re in the middle of a brisk walk, your heart rate should be between 50% and 70% of your maximum heart rate, which is 220 minus your age.

Wearable trackers check your heart rate for you. You can do this on your own, too:

  • Press two fingertips on the artery on the inside of the other wrist.
  • Count the pulse beats for 30 seconds.
  • Double it to get your heart rate.

11. Listen to your body. It’s normal to feel some soreness when you start a new exercise program. But if you have any pain that’s sharp or unusual, that may be a sign something’s wrong. Don’t try to push through to finish. Instead, take a break. Another sign that you’re overdoing it: Your joints still feel sore 2 hours after your walk. That means you need to scale back on the time or intensity of your workouts.

12. Stay the course. Can’t seem to resist the call of the couch? Try these steps to boost your motivation:

  • Track your progress. You can use a journal or exercise app to record how far, how long, and how often you walk.
  • Wear a pedometer. Research suggests that keeping count of your steps encourages you to move more.
  • Join forces. Meeting up with others can make walking more fun. It also holds you accountable, so you’re less likely to skip a workout. Find a friend to buddy up with, or join a local walking group.