Why You Should Keep Exercising with Arthritis, and Tips to Make It Easier

Learn about the relationship between exercise and arthritis and how exercise helps arthritis pain. Get tips from physical therapists on how to exercise with arthritis.

Published Date: Jun 15, 2023
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It’s probably not news that movement and exercise are good for you. But if you have arthritis, you may be all too familiar with the joint pain, swelling, and stiffness arthritis can bring. This can make everyday activities challenging, including exercise. While moving body parts that are already uncomfortable might seem like a bad idea, the opposite is typically true: Exercise helps most people with arthritis feel better.

Lack of activity leads to loss of strength, decreased range of motion, and decreased comfort during everyday activities, says Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. But if you continue to get ample exercise — or start getting more if you’re not currently moving much — you’ll reap some major perks. “Research shows exercise is safe, doesn’t cause more joint degeneration, and it actually decreases your pain,” says Dr. Kemp. In fact, people with arthritis may decrease pain and increase functioning by 40% simply by being active, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Of course, living with arthritis might mean that certain activities are better suited for you than others. You might also have questions about how intensely or how often to exercise, or want to know about specific moves that are helpful for arthritis. Here, learn more about why and how to exercise and get some feel-better moves from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kemp is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in fall prevention, post-operative orthopedic recovery, neurological rehabilitation, and movement optimism.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

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Why Exercise Helps Arthritis

Being physically active is beneficial for just about everyone, and that includes people with arthritis. It helps prevent deconditioning so you can stay healthy and active in your daily life. But exercise can do more than help maintain your baseline level of functioning. Exercising when you have arthritis also:

  • Strengthens muscles that support joints, which takes some pressure off of painful joints.

  • Decreases joint pain and swelling, in part because it promotes joint lubrication. “The joints contain synovial fluid that’s rich in nutrients,” says Dr. Kemp. “Movement helps flush out old fluid and bring in new fluid, which promotes joint health.” Movement also helps relieve pain by desensitizing the nerves and improving range of motion. 

  • Helps combat fatigue by increasing blood circulation and flexibility while generating feel-good brain chemicals (endorphins) and promoting better sleep. 

You might be surprised to learn that people with arthritis are recommended to get as much exercise as anyone else — not less. According to the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, people with arthritis should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week. You should also aim to incorporate some strength-training activities and balance training work into your routine.

Many people face barriers in meeting this recommendation, and arthritis may prevent you from achieving this goal right away. And that’s okay. But you should still aim to work your way up to that goal. Over time, your body will adjust and you’ll be able to do more. 

Courteney Kemp, PT, DPT
Our bodies are a dynamic ecosystem. Applying a little stress to the joints in the form of exercise helps them learn to adapt.

There are many different types of arthritis, and arthritis can impact different joints. But if you have arthritis and are just starting to increase your activity level, the following tips can help, says Dr. Kemp:

  • Start slowly. Don’t try to go from nothing to being a marathoner overnight. Your body needs time to adjust to gradual increases in movement so you can avoid unnecessary pain flares. 

  • Break up activity into smaller chunks. “You can do small, more frequent doses, like a short walk here and there,” says Dr. Kemp. “As time goes on, you’ll build up tolerance and should be able to do more at once.”

  • Modify painful activities. If you have arthritis in your hips or knees, you might find some higher-impact activities (like running or jumping) to be painful. Modifying those activities or swapping them out for other options temporarily might help in addressing your pain. For example, you could swap out jogging for hiking or biking for a while. As you build up tolerance, you might feel more confident adding activities that used to hurt back into the mix.

  • Listen to your body. A little discomfort is okay, and it doesn’t mean that you’re further damaging your joints, says Dr. Kemp. We’ll say that part again: Pain doesn’t automatically mean there’s damage. That said, you shouldn’t be in extreme pain during exercise or afterward. If that happens, take it as a sign to pull back a little.

Best Exercises for Arthritis 

Believe it or not, there’s no such thing as the “best” type of exercise for arthritis. The best exercise for you just depends on what you enjoy and what your body can tolerate. If you’re not sure where to start, the following options may be good ones to explore, says Dr. Kemp. Just remember, you shouldn’t feel confined to these activities alone. 

  • Brisk walking. It provides many of the same benefits of running but without putting so much force on the joints in your lower body.

  • Biking, which provides a low-impact aerobic workout.

  • Swimming. “Even just walking in the water is beneficial,” says Dr. Kemp. “Water gives you buoyancy, so it takes the weight of gravity off your joints.”

  • Yoga and tai chi. Both can help you stretch and strengthen your muscles, as well as promote better balance and relieve stiffness. You may need to modify some moves as a result of your arthritis, so be sure to tell your instructor if you’re having trouble with anything. 

PT-Recommended Exercises for Arthritis

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Standing Hamstring Stretch
  • Standing Hip Flexor Stretch
  • Seated Knee Extension
  • Standing Side Leg Raise
  • Sit to Stand

In general, moving in whatever way feels good for you is a fantastic way to stay active with arthritis. In addition to that, these exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are beneficial for many people with arthritis in their lower body.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Physical Therapy for Arthritis

You might be able to exercise on your own if you have arthritis, but working with a physical therapist (PT) can be extremely helpful, too. A physical therapist can do a full assessment and determine if there are factors besides your arthritis that are impacting how you move. “We’re movement specialists,” says Dr. Kemp. “So we prescribe an exercise plan and help you increase your activity level based on your personal tolerance.”

You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

PT Tip: Don’t Push Through Unacceptable Levels of Pain

“It’s normal to have some discomfort when you start exercising, but you need to find your movement sweet spot,” says Dr. Kemp. This is a happy medium between doing too much and causing a pain flare, and too little so you’re not challenging your body to get stronger. You can move up to that point of discomfort and nudge into it, but then you want to back off, adds Dr. Kemp. “I like to say, ‘kiss the pain then come off of it—don’t force it.’” 

Any post-exercise soreness should be manageable and resolve within 24 hours. If you experience pain beyond that, it’s a sign that you might have done too much and you need to scale back slightly before increasing your activity level slowly again.  

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  2. Exercise to Ease Arthritis Pain. (2021, October 12). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/communications/features/arthritis-exercise.html

  3. Bartlett, S. (n.d.). Role of Exercise in Arthritis Management. Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. https://www.hopkinsarthritis.org/patient-corner/disease-management/role-of-exercise-in-arthritis-management/#:~:text=Regular%20physical%20activity%20can%20keep,and%20reduces%20stiffness%20and%20pain

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  6. What to Know About Cycling with Osteoarthritis. (2022, September 20). Hospital for Special Surgery. https://www.hss.edu/article_cycling-with-osteoarthritis.asp