You Need These 5 Types of Exercise if You Have Osteoarthritis



If you have osteoarthritis, the most common variety, you might be reluctant to exercise. Exercise will be challenging if your joints are stiff. But, once you start moving, the stiffness will improve, and you’ll enjoy the full range of health and fitness benefits that exercise offers.

Healthcare providers now agree that people with mild to moderate osteoarthritis can safely exercise, and even if you have severe osteoarthritis, you still need movement to reduce joint stiffness and prevent muscle atrophy. However, people with severe arthritis can benefit from supervised exercise with a physical therapist to make their workouts as safe as possible.

What type of exercise do you need if you have arthritis? Let’s look at five types of exercise you should be doing with osteoarthritis.

Strength Training

Contrary to widespread belief, exercise doesn’t worsen osteoarthritis. Quite the opposite! Strength training is necessary with arthritis. If you have arthritic knees, strengthening your quadriceps, the muscle in the front of your thigh that supports your knee, helps stabilize and protect your knee joint. A review of multiple studies in 2020, called a meta-analysis, found that strength training boosted muscle strength and size in older adults with osteoarthritis.

Why is building strength and muscle size crucial with osteoarthritis? People with osteoarthritis often have muscle weakness in their quadriceps, the muscle in the front of the thighs. Weak quads mean less stability and support for the knee joint. Plus, such weakness contributes to limitations in function. Strong quads are your best protection against loss of functionality.

If you have osteoarthritis, you need to use good form and listen to your body. Extend the length of your warm-up to give your muscles and joints a chance to prepare for the upcoming exercises. Also, add a few extra minutes to your cooldown. A longer warm-up and cool-down may help reduce joint discomfort after a workout. Start slow with lighter weights and gradually increase the intensity of your sessions, as your joints permit. Avoid doing exercises that consistently cause joint pain. There are ways to modify most exercises to make them joint-friendly, or you can substitute another one that will be less uncomfortable for your joints.

Endurance Exercise

Endurance exercises are movements that mostly use your lower body and keep your heart rate up for sustained periods, 20 minutes or longer. Many people with arthritis complain of feeling tired and lacking energy. Endurance exercise helps build stamina, as it conditions your heart and cardiovascular system. Plus, rhythmically moving your limbs helps nourish and lubricate your joints.

If you have arthritic knees or hips, it’s safer and more comfortable to do a low-impact exercise where your feet are not pounding against a firm surface. Good choices include walking, cycling, and swimming. If you have access to a rowing machine, that’s another low-impact option. Swimming is one of the best options because the water supports your body and takes all the stress off your joints.

Flexibility Exercises

If you have arthritis, you’re familiar with joint stiffness. The best prescription for joint stiffness, besides movement, is stretching. Research shows that people with arthritis who stretch regularly are more functional and have a better quality of life. Among the best stretches for reducing joint stiffness are hamstring stretches and quad stretches. You probably already stretch after a workout but do a series of stretches after awakening and at intervals throughout the day to ease joint tightness. Also, get up and walk around frequently. Sitting too much tightens your hip flexors.

Balance Exercises

According to Arthritis.org, research links joint pain with an increased risk of falling, and falls can lead to broken bones or other injuries. You can lower your risk of falls by including balance exercises in your training. One of the simplest is to stand on a flat surface, raise one leg, and balance for as long as possible. Then switch sides. Try to increase the time you can keep your leg up. Tai Chi and yoga are other helpful forms of exercise for improving balance and reducing the risk of falls. One analysis of multiple studies, known as a meta-analysis, found Tai Chi reduced the risk of falling by up to 50% over 12 months.

Relaxational Exercises

Having stiff joints can be stressful. Including some form of exercise that helps your body relax is beneficial. This might include yoga or taking a stroll in nature. Some research suggests yoga or walking in a green space, like the woods, stimulates the release of endorphins, natural chemicals that relieve pain and reduce stress. Keep your exercise sessions balanced. If you do a strength-training workout or endurance session one day, compensate by doing a workout, like yoga, that helps you relax.

The Bottom Line

When you exercise with arthritis, listen to your body. If you feel pain doing a particular movement, stop doing that exercise or modify it to make it more comfortable. Don’t overdo it. Give yourself rest and recovery days, where you only do gentle stretching.

Exercise won’t cure arthritis, but if you stay physically active, you should be able to move more easily ten or twenty years from now. Plus, there’s evidence that movement slows the progression of degenerative forms of arthritis if you don’t sustain an injury. By staying active, you’ll retain and even improve your functionality. Plus, exercise will help control your weight. When you maintain a healthy body weight, you place less stress on your joints. So, keep moving and keep your workouts balanced.


  • “Physical Activity for Arthritis | CDC.” cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/physical-activity-overview.html.
  • “Exercise: Rx for overcoming osteoarthritis – Harvard Health.” 24 Jun. 2019, health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercise-rx-for-overcoming-osteoarthritis.
  • Vincent, K. R., & Vincent, H. K. (2012). Resistance exercise for knee osteoarthritis. PM & R: the journal of injury, function, and rehabilitation, 4(5 Suppl), S45-S52. doi.org/10.1016/j.pmrj.2012.01.019.
  • “Osteoarthritis and Falls | Arthritis Foundation.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/managing-pain/joint-protection/osteoarthritis-and-falls.
  • Lomas-Vega R, Obrero-Gaitán E, Molina-Ortega FJ, Del-Pino-Casado R. Tai Chi for Risk of Falls. A Meta-analysis. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2017 Sep;65(9):2037-2043. doi: 10.1111/jgs.15008. Epub 2017 Jul 24. PMID: 28736853.
  • “Endorphins: Effects and how to boost them.” 06 Feb. 2018, medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320839.
  • “Can Osteoarthritis Progression Be Stopped?.” arthritis.org/diseases/more-about/can-osteoarthritis-progression-be-stopped.
  • “Weight Training with Osteoarthritis – Verywell Health.” 19 Mar. 2021, https://www.verywellhealth.com/weight-training-with-osteoarthritis-4139960.

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