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Health & Exercise Forum

Exercise Tips for Those with Osteoarthritis

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Jul 27, 2020

Patients often tell me that they would like to exercise but hesitate due to their knee or hip pain. They want to know what type of exercise is best for those suffering from osteoarthritis (OA). Osteoarthritis is also known as degenerative arthritis. It is the most common form of arthritis in the knee. It is usually a gradual, slow and progressive process of “wear and tear” to the cartilage in the joint which eventually wears down to the bony joint surface. It is most often found in middle-aged and older people and in weight bearing joints such as the hip, knee and ankle. It causes gradual onset of pain, swelling and stiffness in the involved joint, especially after increased activity and weakness with loss of function due to disuse.

However, OA is not an excuse to avoid exercise but it is important to be smart about it. Regular exercise is essential to maintain a normal lifestyle for those with OA. However, if you do the wrong exercise, use poor technique, or are too aggressive, you could flare-up your joints and do more harm than good.

Benefits of Exercise for Those with OA

When performed correctly, exercise for those with OA has many benefits:

Pain Control

Exercise controls OA pain by releasing natural pain control chemicals in the body called endorphins. It also controls pain by assisting in weight loss and improving range of motion.

Weight Control

We all know how well exercise burns calories and that increased body weight creates increase stress on the joints.

Prevention of Joint Stiffness

Exercise will help maintain joint range of motion. A stiff joint is a painful joint.

Prevention of Muscle Weakness

Exercise will help maintain muscle strength. Weak muscles will allow or increase in joint wear and tear.

Maintain Lifestyle

If a joint is stiff and weak, then they become painful which negatively impacts your lifestyle. Exercise can prevent this problem.  

Tips How To Exercise With Osteoarthritis

Start Slowly

Wean into exercise because if you advance too quickly, you will flare up the joint and have increased pain. For example, walk for 5-10 minutes the first session. If you do not have pain, add 1-2 minutes each session.

Lose Weight

Every pound lost equates to less stress on your joints. For example, a loss of 5 pounds of body weight translates to 20-30 pounds of stress through the knee, according to David Borenstein, MD, President of the American College of Rheumatology. Also, body weight has a direct impact on daily activities. For example, walking upstairs creates stress through the knee equal to 4 times body weight and seven times body weight going downstairs. Therefore, less body weight equals less stress.

Low Impact Workouts

Low impact exercise creates less stress on the joints while strengthening leg muscles and those who those who maintain leg muscle strength have less stress on their joints. It is even important not to load your arms with heavy objects when walking or using stairs to limit joint stress.

Some examples of low-impact exercises are: walking, swimming, elliptical trainer, and biking. Strength training is also low-impact and should be performed with low weight and high repetitions. Water therapy is great for those with OA, especially in a heated pool. It is a great low-impact exercise with less gravity and stress on the joints. Walk, swim and do mild resistance exercises in the water. Use a snorkel and mask for swimming to limit excessive neck turning and back extension.

Walking is a great form of exercise; however, walking softly is important for those with OA. Wear good running shoes and orthotics if necessary. Discuss this with your physical therapist or podiatrist. When possible, use soft surfaces like cinder, mulch or rubber. Avoid grass and soft stand due to instability and torsion that may irritate your joints.  


Warming up your body is critical to prevent injury to the muscles and tendons. This can be done by marching in place or using aerobic equipment such as a bike for 5 to 10 minutes before exercise. Always perform the warm-up activity at ½ your normal pace.

Balance & Relaxation Techniques

Tai Chi and ballroom dancing are two good examples of activities which promote balance and relaxation. Studies showed that those with OA who participated in Tia Chi two times a week for eight weeks reported less pain, increased range of motion and improved daily activities and function. They also noted less low back pain and better sleeping.

Proper Clothing

Stay warm in winter and consider wearing compression shorts. Be cool in the summer months with DrytechR type material.

Pre/Post Exercise First Aid

If you are sore for longer than 12 to 24 hours after exercise, then you overdid it and must make adjustments next time. Otherwise, use hot packs, bath or shower before you

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This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor  in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM.