If you have osteoarthritis, your relationship with exercise is bound to be a tricky one. After all, increasing physical activity is one of the fundamental must-dos for managing the degenerative wear-and-tear joint disease and slowing its progression. But if you have osteoarthritis, certain exercises can be incredibly painful and contribute to further joint damage.
That’s why it’s critical to take a smart, measured approach to exercise if you’re one of the more than 30 million Americans that has osteoarthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Consult with a specialist.
- Warm up.
- Focus on low-impact workouts.
- Use your full range of motion, as long as it’s pain-free.
- Learn isometric exercises.
- Keep things short and frequent.
- Tune into your body and adjust as necessary.
Consult With a Specialist
Discussing your individual joint health, symptoms and exercise history with an expert is the perfect starting point when increasing physical activity with osteoarthritis, says Katrina Pilkington, a Nevada-based National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist. She recommends reaching out to your rheumatologist and getting set up with a personal trainer or physical therapist.
Working with a trainer or physical therapist is especially important if you have never worked with one in the past. Both can teach you the fundamentals of exercise form to ensure you perform all activity in the safest, healthiest manner for you.
When you’re short on time, it can be tempting to dive straight into your workout, but don’t give in. It’s critical to take a few minutes at the beginning of any exercise routine to increase blood flow to the muscles and joints you’re about to work, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Some gentle warmup drills include arm circles, side-to-side marches, partial bodyweight squats and light cardio, such as walking and cycling.
Focus on Low-Impact Workouts
High-impact exercises involving running and jumping can help strengthen your bones, joints and their supporting musculature, but this isn’t the best starting place for anyone with joint disease. “I would recommend starting with lower-impact exercises and gradually progress based on how you feel,” says physical therapist William Behrns, a board-certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Great low- and no-impact forms of exercise include cycling, swimming and strength training, in which both feet stay planted on the floor at all times. For example, instead of stepping back and forth during lunges, performing them with a stationary split stance eliminates any potential jolting of your ankles, knees and hips. Similarly, swap out jump squats for goblet squats (where you hold a single weight in front of your chest) to work your muscles just as hard while reducing potentially irksome stress to your joints.
Use Your Full Range of Motion as Long as It’s Pain-Free
Your joints’ ability to freely move is contingent on regular movement, Pilkington says. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. However, it’s important that you don’t force your body into painful positions.
For example, maybe you can get into a very low squat, but it hurts your knees and/or hips. Stick to a shorter range of motion, bending at the hips and knees only as far as you can do so without pain, Behrns says.
Learn Isometric Exercises
In some joints, just about any motion can be painful – and that’s where isometric exercises come in handy. In them, rather than moving up and down or side to side, you hold a position.
With isometric exercises, it’s important to remember that you’ll only challenge and strengthen your muscles in the positions that you’re holding. So, if possible, hold each exercise in multiple positions. For instance, if you’re performing isometric lunges, try holding the exercise for 30 seconds near the bottom of your available range of motion and again for 30 seconds near the top.
Other isometric exercises to try include squats, glute bridges and shoulder raises. These are particularly helpful since osteoarthritis most commonly affects the knees, hips and shoulders.
Keep Things Short and Frequent
Sprinkling short activity sessions throughout the day is a great way for anyone to fit exercise into their daily routine and break up time spent sitting. But for anyone with osteoarthritis, short activity sessions can also be useful in ensuring that, when you do exercise, you don’t overstress your joints, Pilkington says.
Any movement, no matter how brief, counts toward your daily activity goals. Behrns recommends getting 150 cumulative minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. A combination of the two also works.
Tune Into Your Body and Adjust as Necessary
Exercising with osteoarthritis can be frustrating, especially if exercise mistakes contributed to your condition or you’re a longtime exerciser who’s suddenly limited in what your body can and can’t do.
However, if you move forward based on how your body feels – rather than what you’re used to or what you expect your body to do now – you’ll be far better off, Behrns says. He recommends listening to your symptoms and if you experience any pain, to immediately think through what aggravated your body and do something about it. That could mean switching up exercise variations, scheduling more recovery work into your routine or adjusting the time during the day that you work out.