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Is exercise good for arthritis relief?

March 28, 2017 | Heather Shannon
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If you have arthritis, stick to low-impact activities that don't stress your joints.

When you have stiff, painful and swollen joints, the last thing on your mind might be getting outdoors for a little physical activity.

Regular exercise is one of the most beneficial ways to care for your joints and improve your overall health when you have:

Arthritis is the loss of the protective layer of cartilage that cushions and lubricates your bones as you move.

“As you slowly lose the cartilage lining that covers the ends of your bones, you have exposed bone,” says Dr. David So, an orthopedic surgeon with UCI Health Hip and Knee Surgery Services.

After enough wear and tear, the exposed bone rubs against another part of the joint with exposed bone. This eventually leads to the familiar pain, swelling and inflammation associated with arthritis.

women walking for arthritis relief

Walking is low-impact, helps maintain your joint's range of motion and keeps muscles strong.

How exercise helps arthritis

Regardless of your arthritis type — osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus-related — So says regular low-impact exercise is one of the best things you can do for several reasons:
  • It helps with weight management. “When you exercise, you keep your weight in check,” So says. The less weight you carry on your frame, the less stress is placed on your joints. This decreased joint load can lead to less arthritis pain and a slower progression of the disease.
  • It keeps your heart and lungs in shape. Regular exercise is good for your heart and lungs. When you are in good aerobic shape, So says, it will be easier to do your daily tasks without stiffness and pain.
  • It keeps your muscles strong. When your joints are surrounded by strong muscles, those muscles can absorb the weight your joints otherwise would.
  • It maintains the joint’s range of motion. One of the symptoms of knee and hip arthritis is joint stiffness and a decrease in the range of motion. Regular exercise can help keep joints nimble and flexible.
  • It may shorten postsurgical recovery time.

If you eventually need joint replacement surgery, your physical strength will help you bounce back more quickly than someone who does not exercise. Learn more about knee implants ›

man swimming for arthritis relief

Swimming is a great low-impact activity for arthritis sufferers.

Exercises to do — and avoid

This doesn’t mean you should enroll in a marathon.

Instead, So recommends that arthritis sufferers stick to low-impact activities that do not stress the joints, such as:

Avoid high-impact sports such as:

  • Singles tennis
  • Full-court basketball
  • Running
  • Volleyball

So says the ideal amount of exercise is three to six times a week for 45 minutes to an hour, including warm up, cool down and stretch.

Read more: How to start exercising ›

Will exercising make arthritis worse?

If a bout of low-impact activity has left you feeling sore the next day, So recommends:

  • Heat for soreness
  • Ice for swelling
  • Anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin for pain
  • Plenty of rest until you can move comfortably again

One of the most common questions So hears when he advises an arthritic patient to exercise is, “Am I damaging myself by exercising?”

Not necessarily, he says.

“Everything you do may cause your arthritis to worsen, because no matter what you do, some load goes through the joint,” says So.

However, low-impact exercise is not much more stressful to the joints than the regular daily walking that most people do and will not speed the progression of the disease.

Whether his patients are already very active or just starting an exercise regimen, So encourages them to stick with it.

“I tell my arthritis patients they can continue doing all the sports and activities they want,” says So. “If it’s your joy in life, keep on doing it.”

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