woman using a resistance band

If you have arthritis, you might be surprised to learn that exercise can help ease your joint pain. Although it may seem counterintuitive, lack of activity can actually aggravate joint pain and stiffness. Without exercise, the muscles that support your joints weaken, creating greater stress on the joints.

Moderate exercise is a vital part of a successful treatment plan for arthritis. According to the Mayo Clinic, in addition to reducing pain and discomfort caused by the condition, exercise can:

  • Increase your strength and flexibility by developing the muscles around your joints and helping to maintain bone health
  • Help fight fatigue and give you more energy
  • Aid in weight maintenance
  • Promote better sleep patterns
  • Improve your self-esteem and overall sense of well-being

Let's get started!

The first step is to check with your doctor before starting on any new exercise program. Your healthcare team, which may include a physiotherapist, can advise on what types of exercise are most appropriate, given the type and severity of your arthritis.

Some easy exercises that your doctor might recommend include:

Range-of-Motion/Flexibility Exercises

Range-of-motion exercises are very gentle and simply involve moving your joints fully through their natural range of movement. These exercises are helpful for arthritis pain because they relieve stiffness while increasing your ability to move through a wider range of motion.

Specific exercises can be quite basic, but the key to reaping the full benefits is to practice them daily. Try these:

Shoulder roll
Move your shoulders slowly and carefully through their entire range of motion in both directions. Begin by shrugging upward, bringing your shoulders as close to your ears as possible. Then, move your shoulders as far forward as you can comfortably reach. Roll your shoulders down your back, concentrating on moving your shoulder blades towards each other. Return to the starting position. Now reverse the motion so that you shrug up and then backward, again focusing on your shoulder blades before moving. Repeat three times in both directions.

Arm raise:
From a standing position, lift both of your arms over your head, keeping your elbows as straight as possible. Move your shoulders up, then back, and then down, keeping your arms close to your ears. Take a few deep breaths while you find the right position and then slowly lower your arms back to your sides. Rest for a moment, and then repeat three times.

Cardiovascular/Aerobic Exercise

You don't need to be a marathoner to get the benefits of cardiovascular exercise. Even a light to moderate aerobic, endurance-type workout can help your overall fitness while providing the benefits listed above. If you suffer from joint pain, it's important to choose lower-impact exercises that are easier on your joints and that avoid a "pounding" motion. Great choices include:

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Fitness machines (such as elliptical trainer)

You can get benefits from even short sessions of aerobic exercise. If you're just starting out, try any of these activities for five or 10 minutes without stopping. Ideally, you will work your way up to exercising 30 minutes at a time, three times a week. However, you can continue to break up your sessions if shorter spells feel better on your joints.

Strengthening/Resistance Exercise

With a nice aerobic base from your cardiovascular exercise of choice, strengthening exercises will feel much easier. Strengthening exercises involve resistance training. Light weights offer a good form of resistance to those with arthritis. You can use either free weights or weight machines at the gym. Your doctor or physiotherapist can advise you on the right type of weights to use for your particular form of arthritis and how much weight to start with.

Strength training should not be done every day--your joints and muscles need a recovery period to get the full benefits of your work. Plan to take one to two days off between each session and aim to practice strengthening exercises two to three times per week. You might also try strengthening exercises that use your own body weight as resistance, such as squats, pushups, or abdominal crunches.

When it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing. Choose what works for you. Get your doctor's support and stick with it for the best chance of arthritis symptom improvement.