How Does Exercise Affect Osteoarthritis?

If you’re bothered by osteoarthritis, you might be concerned by the effects of exercise on your condition. With pain in your knee joints, for example, just the thought of the added stress from exercise could be enough to keep you on the couch. But it turns out that the opposite is true: strengthening and stretching your muscles actually provides added support to your aching joints, leading to pain relief and increased functionality.

Exercise helps you:

  • Maintain the joint’s full range of motion
  • Strengthen the muscles that support the joint
  • Absorb joint shock
  • Combat fatigue
  • Maintain bone strength

Even moderate exercise is enough to get all these benefits, while lack of exercise leads to joints that are more painful and stiff. Your doctor or physical therapist can recommend specific exercises for you, but generally the exercises will fall into several categories:

Range of Motion Exercises — Relieve stiffness and increase mobility through a joint’s full range of motion. These exercises can be done daily.

Strengthening Exercises — Build muscle strength to support and protect your joints. Use free weights, weight machines, or resistance tubing two to three days per week. A physical therapist can help you develop a training plan for good all-around muscle balance that will be most beneficial to your joints.

Aerobic Exercises — Aerobic or endurance exercises improve your cardiovascular health, help you control your weight (which decreases stress on your joints), and give you more stamina and energy. Low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking, bicycling, swimming, and using an elliptical machine at moderate intensity are great ways to maintain long-term health and mobility.

So exercise helps relieve osteoarthritis. But aren’t there some exercises that can do more damage?

Osteoarthritis is basically the wearing down of cushioning cartilage in the joint, to the point where adjacent bones begin to make contact in ways they were not meant to. And there have been studies that have shown that some exercises can contribute to this wearing down of cartilage. As people reach middle age they should use caution with high impact, weight bearing activities such as jumping or running, according to Dr Christoph Stehling, of the University of California.

Adds a spokesperson for the Arthritis Research Campaign: “Most people can exercise without any problems, but if you have had a joint injury or torn cartilage or ligaments you should be cautious … It is a matter of balance and sensible moderation.”