Science-Backed Tips for Exercising with Knee Arthritis

Science-Backed Tips for Exercising with Knee Arthritis

(Last Updated On: April 13, 2019)

Is exercise good or bad for knee arthritis?

Painful knees are a common problem, especially as you reach late middle age. One of the most frequent causes of chronic knee discomfort is osteoarthritis, degeneration of the cartilage within the knee joints. Stiff, achy knees from knee arthritis can even present a challenge when you exercise. The good news is exercise increases blood flow and helps lubricate the knee joints. Movement can help those achy knees feel less stiff and achy. Research even shows exercise helps preserve joint function and helps arthritic knees maintain a healthy range-of-motion.

So, there’s no need to shy away from exercise if you have knee arthritis. In fact, exercise can help your knees feel better! One study found that people who exercised with osteoarthritis of the knee experienced a 12% reduction in pain symptoms. But, make sure you’re doing it in a way that doesn’t cause more discomfort. Here are some tips to help you safely and effectively exercise when you have stiff or painful knees from osteoarthritis.

Strengthen Your Quads

How strong are your quads? The quads are the big muscles in the front of your thigh that helps support and stabilize the knee joint. These muscles also absorb shock each time you take a step. So, you want them to be strong. Does science support quad strengthening for knee arthritis?  A 2012 randomized clinical trial found that an 8-week quad strengthening program improved pain, function, and quality of life in people with osteoarthritis – but do it safely. If you’re just starting to strength train, use light resistance at first until you build up baseline strength.

What about squatting? A misconception is that you shouldn’t squat if you have osteoarthritis of the knees. Not true. If you do a squat correctly, it’s a safe and effective exercise for boosting quad strength even if you have arthritic knees. The key is to use good form. If you use bad form, your knees will shift too far forward when you squat, and you’ll experience knee discomfort. One way to correct this is to do box squats. You’ll need a box that’s just below knee level in height. When you squat, lower your body in a controlled manner until your buttocks touch the box. Then, come back up using the same controlled motion. Adding the box shifts some of the stress of squatting away from the knees and toward the hips.

Another tip is to keep your knees in line with your feet when you squat. One mistake people make that worsens knee pain is they let their knees collapse inward when they descend into a squat. Also, work on strengthening your glutes. Weak gluteal muscles make it harder to squat without letting your knees collapse inward. If you experience discomfort going deep into a squat, only descend until your legs are parallel to the floor.

Lunges can also trigger knee pain if you do them incorrectly. The key to avoiding achy knees when you lunge is to not to let your knee extend past your ankle. Stick mainly to standing lunges or forward leaning lunges rather than doing lunges where you step forward or backward. Both of these types of lunges are easier on your knees. Also, don’t be afraid to alter the depth of your lunge. If lunging deeply causes pain, don’t go as low into the lunge.

Is High-Impact Exercise Good or Bad For Knee Arthritis – Yes or No?

You may have heard in the past that you shouldn’t do high-impact exercise, like running or jumping, if you have arthritis of the knees. Experts once believed that the force of impact could further damage the knee joint. But, more recent evidence suggests that high-impact exercise may not be harmful and may actually be helpful for people with mild osteoarthritis of the knee.

High-impact exercise may help with prevention too. A study published in Arthritis Care and Research found that 0f 2,600 patients, those who ran at some time in their life were 20 to 35% less likely to develop symptoms of knee osteoarthritis. The key is to do high-impact exercise in moderation and listen to your body. If you feel pain or discomfort when both feet leave the ground, scale back or stop. Also, check with your physician first. If you have severe osteoarthritis, they may recommend doing only low-impact exercise. Keep in mind that moderate physical activity helps ease knee pain associated with arthritis, but vigorous activity may cause a flare-up.

One way to sturdy your knees when you’re doing high-impact exercise is to wear a knee brace for support. Always start with a 5 to 10-minute warm-up to increase your core body temperature and boost circulation to your knees and other parts of your body. Be sure to wear exercise shoes that offer good support. Warm-ups and wearing the right shoes are even more important if you have knee problems. If you have knee discomfort after a workout, apply a cold pack.

If you consistently have knee pain when you do high-impact exercise, switch to low-impact exercise, like cycling. Cycling workouts are highly effective for building cardiovascular fitness and endurance and don’t place excessive stress on your knees.

The Role of Stretching in Helping Knee Arthritis Problems and Pain

You probably do some form of stretching before or after a workout but doing it more often can help your knees feel better. That’s because stretches that lengthen your quads reduce tension on the knee joints. Consider doing simple knee stretches every few hours throughout the day to reduce stiffness. Here’s a stretch you can do at the office or almost anywhere:


·       Stand with your feet separated about hip distance

·       Bend your left knee behind you and grab it with your left hand.

·       Stretch your left heel as close as possible to your glutes.

·       Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.

·       Repeat with the other leg.


Then, do some calf stretches to further reduce the stress on your knee joints. One of the simplest you can do is the eccentric calf stretch. To do this exercise, stand on a step with your heels hanging off. Then, lower your heels so they drop below horizontal. You should feel a stretch. Hold the stretch for a few seconds and come back up. Repeat with the other leg.

The Bottom Line

Always talk to your physician about what type of exercise you should do, but for the majority of people with knee arthritis, exercise is not only okay but necessary and beneficial. If you have to modify your workout, do so, but keep moving!



· “Knee and Hip Exercises for Osteoarthritis

· “Arthritis of the Knee”

·       Acta Ortop Bras. 2012; 20(3): 174–179.

·       PM R. 2012 May; 4(5 0): S45–S52.

·       Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2017 Feb;69(2):183-191. doi: 10.1002/acr.22939.


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Are Women at Higher Risk for Knee Problems?

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What Impact Does Strength Training Have on Arthritis?

Low Impact Series: Joint-Friendly Training Tips and Alternatives to Squats and Lunges

Why Are My Knees Hurting? 5 Common Causes of Knee Pain in Active People

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