Exercising With Osteoarthritis

Physical activity is the best non-drug treatment for improving pain and function.


While you may worry that exercising with osteoarthritis could harm your joints and cause more pain, research shows that people can and should exercise when they have osteoarthritis. Exercise is considered the most effective non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement in osteoarthritis.

Three kinds of exercise are important for people with osteoarthritis: exercises involving range of motion, also called flexibility exercises; endurance or aerobic exercises; and strengthening exercises. Each one plays a role in maintaining and improving your ability to move and function.

Speak with your doctor or physical therapist about exercising with osteoarthritis and the specific exercises that are best for you.

Range of motion/flexibility: Range of motion refers to the ability to move your joints through the full motion they were designed to achieve. When you have osteoarthritis, pain and stiffness make it very difficult to move certain joints more than just a little bit, which can make even the simplest tasks challenging.

Range-of-motion exercises include gentle stretching and movements that take joints through their full span. Doing these exercises regularly – ideally every day – can help maintain and even improve the flexibility in your joints.

Aerobic/endurance: These exercises strengthen your heart and make your lungs more efficient. This conditioning has the added benefit of reducing fatigue, so you have more stamina throughout the day. Aerobic exercise also helps control your weight by increasing the amount of calories your body uses. Furthermore, this type of exercise can help you sleep better and improve your mood.

How much should you exercise? Current recommendations for 

150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week


75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week


an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous exercise

Strengthening: Strengthening exercises help maintain and improve your muscle strength. Strong muscles can support and protect joints that are affected by arthritis.

Does stress affect OA?

Yes, having a chronic disease like osteoarthritis can be stressful. Stress, in turn, can make dealing with a disease like osteoarthritis more difficult – and painful.

That’s because when you feel stressed, your body becomes tense. This muscle tension can increase pain, making you feel helpless and frustrated because the added pain may limit your abilities. This, in turn, can depress you. Stress, depression and limited and lost abilities can all contribute to pain, which then perpetuates the cycle. If you understand how your body reacts physically and emotionally to stress and learn how to manage stress, you can break the destructive cycle.

How will losing weight help?

Excess body weight is a risk factor for the both the development and progression of osteoarthritis. For every pound of body weight you gain, your knees gain three pounds of added stress; for hips, each pound translates into six times the pressure on the joints. After many years of carrying extra pounds, the cartilage that cushions the joints tends to break down more quickly than usual.

Conversely, losing weight can reduce additional stress on joints that can cause cartilage to wear away. Easing the pressure on joints by shedding extra pounds can also reduce pain in osteoarthritis-affected joints, which will help you feel and move much better. 

Can OA be prevented?

Although you can’t do anything about the genes you inherit from your parents, you can and should take extra care in minimizing your other risk factors – primarily excess weight and joint injuries.

By maintaining a healthy body weight you avoid putting additional stress on your joints. This stress can wear away at cartilage more quickly than usual and lead to osteoarthritis in weight-bearing joints such as the knees.

Injuries from routine falls or severe bangs and bumps during athletic activities can cause major damage to the cartilage. These injuries can cause cartilage tears, or they can permanently alter the way your joints move so that they wear down cartilage more than usual. You can avoid injuries that may lead to osteoarthritis by taking care of your body. Warming up and stretching before athletic activity and exercise can help you prevent serious injury.  If you do injure yourself, see your doctor to receive proper treatment. Injuries left untreated may heal improperly, which could lead to further damage later on.

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