Top Exercises for Arthritis Relief

Do you find that ordinary daily tasks are causing pain or discomfort in your joints? You might be among the ever-increasing population affected by arthritis.

Arthritis is a group of inflammatory conditions that result in decreased cartilage, joint damage, restricted movement, limited functional capacity, and pain. While there are over 100 different types of arthritis, we will focus on the most common form, osteoarthritis. Other prevalent types of arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.

Arthritis is the most prevalent medical condition for people over the age of 65. It’s the leading cause of disability in later life, affecting both physical and psychosocial function. The pain and fatigue that many experience with arthritis are associated with psychological distress and depression.

But here’s the good news! The negative effects of arthritis can be significantly reduced with exercise. This article will explore how arthritis affects your body and how exercise can help you live with arthritis.


Osteoarthritis is the most prevalent type of arthritis. This disease causes a gradual degradation of the cartilage and the underlying bone in the joints. This damage causes the bone to thicken and the joint to become narrowed, inflamed, and weakened.

Osteoarthritis most commonly affects the hands, feet, spine, hips and knees. Symptoms usually present as chronic joint pain, stiffness, crepitus (that ‘grinding’ feeling), swelling, and even the formation of bony growths or spurs at the joint edges.

This combination of symptoms can lead to significant impairments to functional activity, with the increased fatigue and energy cost of daily activities contributing to many people who suffer from osteoarthritis being physically inactive.

Other Types of Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and deformation. Mainly of the fingers, hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and knees.

This form of arthritis can lead to muscle loss, increased trunk adiposity (fat gain in the stomach), and increases the risk of many co-morbid conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Ankylosing spondylitis is another chronic inflammatory condition that primarily affects the spine and sacroiliac joint at the back of the pelvis. Inflammation causes bony growths to form around these joints, eventually leading to fusion of the segments of the lower spine. The result: low back pain and immobility.

There are many other forms of arthritis, however these are the most common.

How Exercise Can Help with Arthritis

Some of the main physical ailments caused by arthritis are a loss of aerobic capacity, muscular strength, endurance, and joint range of motion. Thankfully, these can all be greatly improved with appropriate exercises.

Moreover, the damaged cartilage in joints with arthritis are avascular, meaning they do not receive their own blood supply. This means that they depend on appropriate joint loading and movement to receive nutrition and to maintain physiological function.

The exercise program you should implement will be based on the state of your arthritis. For example, the joints affected, the stage of the disease, and other medical conditions such as hypertension or previous surgeries will all contribute to deciding which level of exercise will be best for your situation.

The main aims of an exercise regimen for arthritis will be to restore your ability to perform all the tasks of daily living, increase you body composition with sufficient muscle mass, and reduced body fat.

Types of Exercises for Arthritis

Exercise for arthritis can be broken down into three key areas: flexibility, muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance.

Stretching Exercises for Improved Flexibility and Range of Motion

When you suffer from arthritis, inflammation, and damage to the surfaces and tissues of your joints, it can make previously effortless activities, such as getting dressed or drinking a glass of water, difficult and painful.

Eventually, this damage can decrease your range of motion and make everyday tasks nearly impossible. In turn, not moving your joints because of pain or swelling makes them even more stiff! This is where we bring in range of motion and stretching exercises to maintain and improve a healthy freedom of movement for your joints.

These exercises will lubricate and provide nutrition to your arthritic joints, keeping the muscles and tissues around the joints lengthened and elastic. Range of motion exercises should be performed daily for the maximum benefit.

You can try these exercises in the morning if you experience stiffness, in a warm shower if you find the humidity helps to relieve soreness, or even break these exercises up throughout the day to have several small sessions to keep you moving.

Hands & Wrists: Open Up, Close Down

For this exercise, hang your hands off the edge of your knees, or the edge of a table, with palms facing down. As you extend your wrists upward, open your fingers slowly until your hands and fingers are stretched up and outwards, pointing up to the sky.

Next, slowly start to curl your fingers in, knuckle by knuckle, as you flex your wrist back down to the starting position; this should end with your wrists hanging down and your hands closed into fists.

This exercise can be performed 10 to 15 times, and can be followed by some gentle wrist circles or palm ups / palm downs.

Elbows & Knees: Flexion, Extension

For elbow range of motion, simply stand with your arms by your sides, palms facing forwards. Bend your elbows to flex your arms upwards, trying to touch your shoulders if possible without pain. Slowly extend your arms back down to the starting position and repeat for 10 – 15 repetitions.

For knees, the principle is similar. Stand while holding onto a table or wall for balance. Flex one knee, lifting your heel towards your buttocks, then slowly lower your leg back down. You can perform 10 – 15 repetitions before changing sides, or you can alternate between left and right.

Resistance Exercises to Maintain Muscular Strength With Arthritis

As we mentioned, arthritis can make movement painful. When this happens, people move less. This infrequent use of one’s muscles results in muscle atrophy, wastage, and weakness. This makes the appropriate exercise critical to restoring and maintaining our muscle strength to be able to perform all of the necessary daily tasks.

Muscle contractions can be performed while the muscle is in a fixed position or while lengthening and shortening. These are called isometric and isotonic contractions, respectively. Isometric exercises are beneficial if your arthritic joint is particularly inflamed or painful on movement. Isotonic movements are more transferable to functional movements like carrying and lifting objects.

The following exercises can be performed after a warm up of range of motion exercises for 5 – 10 repetitions, or if no pain or inflammation are present, up to 15 repetitions. Resistance training 2 – 3 days per week will be sufficient to gain the strength benefits for the muscles supporting your arthritis.

Wall Sit

To strengthen the lower limb muscles that support your hips, knees and ankles, try this exercise. Simply start by standing with your back to the wall, with the feet shoulder width apart and one step away from the wall. Slide your back slowly down the wall until your hips and knees are both at 90 degrees. Start by holding 10-30 seconds, 1-5 times, building your tolerance.

Wall Push

This exercise will strengthen the muscles that flex the shoulders and extend the elbows. Stand facing a wall with your hands placed on the wall, at chest height, shoulder width apart. Have your feet 1 – 2 feet away from the wall; the further away your feet, the harder the challenge. Next, bend your elbows, allowing your nose and chest to come towards the wall until your elbows are bent 90 degrees. Finally, push away from the wall until your arms extend back to the starting position.

Band Row

For this exercise you will require a resistance band, which you can purchase from a sporting goods store or from a physical therapist. This move is great for strengthening the upper back muscles which keep your posture upright, as well as strengthening your elbow flexors, important muscles for lifting and carrying.

To perform this exercise, tie the band around a fixed point such as a door handle or sturdy table leg. Holding one end of the band in each hand, sit or stand facing the anchor point, with your arms fully extended. Then simply pull or ‘row’ your hands towards your chest, feeling the resistance of the band against your back muscles. Straighten your arms back to the starting point and repeat.

Cardiovascular Exercise for Stamina and Performance

Improving your cardiovascular fitness is critical for allowing you to perform daily tasks and leisure time activities with vigor and confidence. The great thing is that this exercise doesn’t have to be intensive! An accumulation of just 30 minutes a day – even in small 10 minute increments here and there, of moderate aerobic activity can significantly improve your health, fitness, and quality of life with arthritis.

Cardiovascular exercise has many benefits for arthritis patients, including maintaining a healthy body weight, strengthening the heart, improving circulation, increasing energy, lowering blood pressure, and reducing stress, just to name a few! This form of exercise can be performed while weight bearing, or without weight bearing if you experience pain.

It is important to mention that cardiovascular exercise is also an important part of warming up before any exercise session for those with arthritis. This helps ease the joints into movement and a simple five minutes of walking and some gentle range of motion moves like the ones described in this article will be sufficient.

Walking for Arthritis

Walking is arguably the best form of exercise for arthritis, as it is highly flexible, requires no special skills or equipment, and can be done almost anywhere. Walking gives the joints of the lower limb some healthy weight bearing which they need to stay lubricated and strong.

Start by walking moderately, using a simple rate of perceived exertion, or RPE, to monitor your intensity level. The recommendation for those with arthritis is an exertion from 3 – 6 out of 10. Initially bouts as short as 10 minutes are great, but try to work your way up to 30 – 45 minutes on most days of the week.

Aquatic Exercise for Painful Joints

If walking or other weight bearing activities are painful for you, you might consider exercising in the water. Warm water can feel great for sore joints, and the buoyancy of the water decreases the load on your body.

Aquatic exercise can involve different exercises using water as resistance, light swimming or even just walking at chest level in the water to increase your heart rate. Do be careful not to overexert yourself, as the relief of being in the water can lure some into overdoing it. Again, aim for 30 minutes, even alternating this form of movement with others such as walking.

Getting Started

Of course, these are just a few examples of exercises for common areas of arthritic pain. There are many other exercises for arthritis, such as passive assisted stretching where a therapist can help you stretch further than you can by yourself, or pin-loaded resistance machines which make strengthening exercises safe and effective. Please consider consulting with an accredited professional if you would like further help with your arthritis exercise plan.

related articles

From our Writers' Desk


© Copyright 2024. All rights reserved.