While your doctor may advise you to steer clear of some of the high-impact sports and activities that you’ve enjoyed in the past, it’s still possible to maintain an active lifestyle while managing your osteoarthritis (OA).

Exercise is key to maintaining function in people who have OA of the knee. One large study showed that older adults who engaged in moderate physical activity at least three times per week reduced their risk of arthritis-related disability significantly.

If you’re considering adding exercise to your treatment, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Don’t start out too fast. Your pain may increase, prompting you to get discouraged and quit.
  • Expect some increase in pain for the first four to six weeks after starting an exercise program. Sticking with it will result in long-term pain relief.
  • Don’t overdo it. If pain is sharp or knife-like, or causes you to limp, you have probably overdone it, so you should back off a little. If pain is achy and does not affect your daily activities, it’s probably OK to work through it. If your joint is red, hot to touch, and swollen, see your doctor as soon as possible.
  • Try to lose weight. A modest weight loss (e.g., 5 percent of your body weight, or 12 pounds, for a 250-pound person) can help reduce pain and disability.

Jennifer M. Hootman, Ph.D., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist, recommends a simplified way of approaching exercise for people with osteoarthritis:

  • Start low and go slow. Inactive people should start with a small amount of activity — for example, three to five minutes two times a day. You should increase the activity level in small amounts, allowing enough time for your body to adjust.
  • Modify activity if your arthritis symptoms increase. Arthritis symptoms come and go. Most people completely stop activity when their symptoms increase. It’s better to first modify your activity by decreasing the frequency, duration, or intensity, or changing the type of activity to stay as active as possible without making your symptoms worse.
  • Activities should be “joint friendly.” Unsure of what types of activity are best for people with arthritis? A general rule is to choose activities that are easy on the joints, such as walking, bicycling, water aerobics, or dancing. These activities have a low risk of injury and do not twist or pound on the joints too much.
  • Recognize safe places and ways to be active. For inactive adults with arthritis or those who do not have confidence in planning their own physical activity, an exercise class designed just for people with arthritis may be a good option. For those who plan and direct their own activity, finding safe places to be active is important. For example, while walking in your neighborhood or at a local park, make sure the sidewalks or pathways are level and free of obstructions, well lighted, and separated from heavy traffic.
  • Talk to a health professional or a certified exercise specialist. Many health professionals and certified exercise professionals are good sources of information on what types and amounts of activity are appropriate for people with chronic conditions and disabilities.

Exercises You Can Do At Home

The most important thing you can do at home after receiving the diagnosis of osteoarthritis of the knee is to stretch and strengthen. Stretching and strengthening the musculature surrounding the knee, such as the hamstrings, the quadriceps, and the calves, is vital. But it’s important to avoid heavy, weight-bearing activities such as squats, leg presses, and running. Light weight training and low-impact activities like yoga or Pilates are ideal.

For flexibility:

  • Combined calf and hamstring stretch. Sit with your foot slightly elevated resting on a small stool. Bend your ankle up and flex your foot toward your body, keeping the heel in contact with the stool and the knee straight. Slowly reach with both hands toward your toes. Hold the gentle stretch for 30 seconds. Repeat two times and then switch legs.
  • Heel slide. Lie on your back. Slowly slide your heel toward your buttock, keeping your heel in contact with the floor. Hold your knee bent for 30 seconds. Repeat two times and then switch legs.
  • Straight Leg Raise. Lie on your back, bend one leg, and keep the other one straight. Slowly lift the straight leg to 45 degrees; hold and then slowly lower it back down to the ground. Make sure not to use your back to do this. All of the effort should come from the leg muscles. Repeat five to 10 times, and then switch legs.
  • Sit to Stand. Practice this move to make standing easier. Place two pillows on a chair. Sit on top of the pillows, with your back straight and feet flat on floor. Use your leg muscles to slowly and smoothly stand up tall. Then, slowly lower yourself back down to sitting. Be sure your bent knees don’t move in front of your toes. If this is too hard, add pillows or use a chair with armrests and use your arms to help push up.
  • Pillow Squeeze. Place a pillow between your knees and squeeze. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds and release. Repeat five to 10 times.
  • Side Leg Raise. Lie on your side. Tighten your thigh and slowly raise your leg toward the ceiling, keeping the leg perfectly straight. Slowly lower your leg to the starting position. Each repetition should take eight seconds. Repeat the exercise on until you are fatigued, switch sides. When you are able to do 25 reps, you can try adding a light weight to your thigh or ankle.
  • Hamstring Chair Scoots. Sit in a chair with wheels. Propel yourself forward using your hamstring, by extending your leg several feet in front, then pulling back with your heel. Repeat until fatigued.
  • Standing Heel Raises. Stand on one foot. Slowly raise yourself up until the heel is off the ground, keeping the standing leg perfectly straight. Slowly lower. Each repetition should take eight seconds. Repeat the exercise until fatigued, switch legs.