Physical Activity for Arthritis
Physical Activity. The Arthritis Pain Reliever.
Long gone are the days when health care providers told people with arthritis to “rest their joints.” In fact, physical activity can reduce pain and improve function, mobility, mood, and quality of life for most adults with many types of arthritis including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and lupus. Physical activity can also help people with arthritis manage other chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Most people with arthritis can safely participate in a self-directed physical activity program or join one of many proven programs available in communities across the country. Some people may benefit from physical or occupational therapy. Watch the Arthritis Pain Reliever video to learn more about the benefits of physical activity and the types and amounts of exercise helpful for people with arthritis.
Regular physical activity is just as important for people with arthritis or other rheumatic conditions as it is for all children and adults. Scientific studies have shown that participation in moderate-intensity, low-impact physical activity improves pain, function, mood, and quality of life without worsening symptoms or disease severity. Being physically active can also delay the onset of disability if you have arthritis. But people with arthritis may have a difficult time being physically active because of symptoms (e.g., pain, stiffness), their lack of confidence in knowing how much and what to do, and unclear expectations of when they will see benefits. Both aerobic and muscle strengthening activities are proven to work well, and both are recommended for people with arthritis.
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- A National Public Health Agenda for Osteoarthritis [PDF - 3.44MB]
- American College of Rheumatology treatment guidelines
- For a scientific summary on the health benefits of physical activity for adults with arthritis see Chapter G5 of the Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Final Report
Adults with arthritis should follow either the Active Adult or Active Older Adult Guidelines, whichever meets your personal health goals and matches your abilities. People with arthritis should also include daily flexibility exercises to maintain proper joint range of motion and do balance exercises if they are at risk of falling.
Aerobic activities. Aerobic activity is also called "cardio," endurance, or conditioning exercise. It is any activity that makes your heart beat faster and makes you breathe a little harder than when you are sitting, standing or lying. You want to do activity that is moderate or vigorous intensity and that does not twist or "pound" your joints too much. Some people with arthritis can do vigorous activities such as running and can even tolerate some activities that are harder on the joints like basketball or tennis. You should choose the activities that are right for you and that are enjoyable. Remember, each person is different, but there are a wide variety of activities that you can do to meet the Guidelines.
Examples of Moderate and Vigorous Intensity Aerobic Activities
Muscle strengthening activities. You should do activities that strengthen your muscles at least 2 days per week in addition to your aerobic activities. Muscle strengthening activities are especially important for people with arthritis because having strong muscles takes some of the pressure off the joints.
You can do muscle strengthening exercises in your home, at a gym, or at a community center. You should do exercises that work all the major muscle groups of the body (e.g., legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms). You should do at least 1 set of 8–12 repetitions for each muscle group. There are many ways you can do muscle strengthening activities:
- Lifting weights using machines, dumbbells, or weight cuffs.
- Working with resistance bands.
- Using your own bodyweight as resistance (e.g., push-ups, sit ups).
- Heavy gardening (e.g., digging, shoveling).
- Some group exercise classes.
- Muscle strengthening exercise videos.
Balance activities. Many older adults and some adults with arthritis and other chronic diseases may be prone to falling. If you are worried about falling or are at risk of falling, you should include activities that improve balance at least 3 days per week as part of your activity plan. Balance activities can be part of your aerobic or your muscle strengthening activities. Examples of activities that improve balance include the following
- Tai Chi.
- Backward walking, side stepping, heel and toe walking.
- Standing on 1 foot.
- Some group exercise classes.
Additional Recommendations for People with Arthritis
Stay flexible. In addition to the activities recommended above, flexibility exercises are also important. Many people with arthritis have joint stiffness that makes daily tasks such as bathing and fixing meals difficult. Doing daily flexibility exercises for all upper (e.g., neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and finger) and lower (e.g., low back, hip, knee, ankle, and toes) joints of the body helps maintain essential range of motion.
If you have arthritis, you should follow either the Active Adult or Active Older Adult recommendations, whichever meets your personal health goals and matches your abilities. You should do this activity in addition to your usual daily activity. You may notice that the recommended amount and type of activity are the same for the Active Adult and Active Older Adult except for the additional recommendation to include activities that promote balance. Read some additional details for the Active Older Adult below:
Prevent falls. Have you fallen in the past? Do you have trouble walking? If so, you may be at high risk of falling. Activities that improve or maintain balance should be included in your physical activity plan. Examples of activities that have been proven to help balance include walking backwards, standing on one leg, and Tai Chi. Some exercise classes offered in many local communities include exercises that are good for balance.
Stay active. Any physical activity is better than none. If you cannot do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity every week, it is important to be as active as your health allows. People with arthritis often have symptoms that come and go. This may mean that one week you can do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity and the next week you can’t. You may have to change your activity level depending on your arthritis symptoms, but try to stay as active as your symptoms allow. Learn how to modify your activity with tips for S.M.A.R.T. activity, below.
Adjust the level of effort. Some activities take more effort for older adults and those with low fitness or poor function. For example, walking at a brisk pace for a 23-year-old healthy male is moderate intensity, but the same activity may be vigorous activity for a 77-year-old male with diabetes. You should adjust the level of effort during activity so that it is comfortable for you. Find out how to measure your level of effort.
Talk to your doctor. If you have arthritis or another chronic health condition, you should already be under the care of a doctor or other health care provider. Health care providers and certified exercise professionals can answer your questions about how much and what types of activity are right for you.
How Hard Are You Working?
Moderate intensity activity makes your heart beat a little faster and you breathe a little harder. You can talk easily while doing moderate intensity activity, but you may not be able to sing comfortably.
Vigorous intensity activity makes your heart beat much faster and you may not be able to talk comfortably without stopping to catch your breath.
Relative intensity can be estimated using a scale of 0 to 10 where sitting is 0 and 10 is the highest level of effort possible. Moderate intensity activity is a 5 or 6 and vigorous intensity activity is a 7 or 8.
The talk test is a simple way to measure relative intensity. In general, if you're doing moderate-intensity activity you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. If you are doing vigorous-intensity activity, you will not be able to say more than a few words without pausing for a breath.
Safe, enjoyable physical activity is possible for most every adult with arthritis. The most important thing to remember is to find out what works best for you. At first glance, 150 minutes of activity per week sounds like a lot, but if you pay attention to the following tips you will be well on your way to getting the recommended amount of activity in no time!
Studies show that some increase in pain, stiffness, and swelling is normal when starting an activity program. If you have increased swelling or pain that does not get better with rest then talk to your health care provider. It may take 6–8 weeks for your joints to accommodate to your increased activity level, but sticking with your activity program will result in long-term pain relief.
Here is an easy way to remember these tips: Make S.M.A.R.T choices!
Start low, and go slow
Many adults with arthritis are inactive, even though their doctor may have told them being active will help their arthritis. You may want to be more active but just don’t know where to start or how much to do. You may be worried that using your joints and muscles may make your arthritis worse. The good news is that the opposite is true, physical activity will help your arthritis! The first key to starting activity safely is to start low. This may mean you can only walk 5 minutes at a time every other day. The second key is to go slow. People with arthritis may take more time for their body to adjust to a new level of activity. For example, healthy children can usually increase the amount of activity a little each week, while older adults and those with chronic conditions may take 3–4 weeks to adjust to a new activity level. You should add activity in small amounts, at least 10 minutes at a time, and allow enough time for your body to adjust to the new level before adding more activity.
Modify activity as needed.
Remember, any activity is better than none. Your arthritis symptoms, such as pain, stiffness and fatigue, may come and go and you may have good days and bad days. You may want to stop activity completely when your arthritis symptoms increase. It is important that you first try to modify your activity to stay as active as possible without making your symptoms worse. Here are some ways you can do this:
If you currently do some activity or feel confident that you can safely plan your own activity program, you should look for safe places to be physically active. For example, if you walk in your neighborhood or a local park make sure the sidewalks or pathways are level and free of obstructions, are well-lighted, and are separated from heavy traffic.
Talk to a health professional.
You should already be under the care of a health care professional for your arthritis, who is a good source of information about physical activity. Health care professionals and certified exercise professionals can answer your questions about how much and what types of activity match your abilities and health goals.
I don’t do any activity now, how do I start?
Meet Jean, a 48-year-old grandmother.
Jean is 48 years old and has rheumatoid arthritis. Her doctor has told her to increase her physical activity because it will help her arthritis. Jean wants to be able to walk to and from the park and play with her grandchildren. Right now, she does not have the stamina to walk to the park which is only a 15 minute walk from her house. Jean is also not very confident she knows how to safely start and increase her activity level. She is worried she will make her arthritis symptoms worse.
The nurse in Jean’s doctor’s office told her about group exercise programs that are just for people with arthritis. There are classes every week at the community center close to Jean’s neighborhood. Jean works full-time but doesn’t have to start work until 10:00AM. She found out one of the classes, the Arthritis Foundation Aquatics Program (AFAP), meets at 8:00AM on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The class lasts for 60 minutes, which allows her enough time to shower, dress, and get to work on time. Jean went to the community center to sign up but was concerned she may not be able to do 60 minutes of activity at one time. The instructor assured her that the exercises can be modified and the instructors are trained to help each person work at their own level.
For the next 4 months, Jean attends the AFAP class 3 days per week. The first 4 weeks she cannot do all the exercises and has to take a lot of breaks, so she was working at a moderate effort for about 10–15 minutes each class (30–45 minutes of aerobic activity per week). By the 7th week, she can do 20 minutes per class and by the 3rd month she is up to 30 minutes (90 minutes of aerobic activity per week). Jean feels great and can tell she has more stamina. Over the next 4 weeks Jean slowly increases the time she is working at a moderate effort each class until she can do the entire 60 minute class without stopping (180 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week).
Although Jean feels the AFAP has helped strengthen her muscles and given her more stamina, she now feels she should do more muscle strengthening exercises. For Christmas, her children gave her a gift certificate for 4 free sessions with a certified exercise specialist at a local fitness center. At her first session, she asked for instructions on how she can do muscle strengthening exercises at home. The fitness professional gave her some elastic resistance bands and showed her how to use them to strengthen all the major muscle groups of the body. Jean is now using the resistance and 2 days per week in addition to her aquatics classes.
I do some activity now, how can I safely increase my activity to gain more health benefits?
Meet Steve, an active 69-year-old retiree.
Steve is a 69-year old-retired accountant who has been physically active all his life but has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in his knee. Now that he is retired, Steve has the time to increase his activity level even more. Steve’s goal is to increase his total activity per week and to do some vigorous intensity activity because he knows it is good for his heart and may reduce his risk of getting some cancers. Steve currently does 180 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week including—
- Mowing the grass and other moderate yard work = 30 minutes.
- Plays 9 holes of golf 1 day per week walking without a cart = 60 minutes.
- Uses a stationary bicycle at home 3 days per week for 30 minutes = 90 minutes.
- Lifts weights at a local fitness center 2 days per week.
Adding more activity.
Steve wants to increase his total activity to at least 300 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity. He decides that without too much trouble he can easily add 1 more day of golf, adding 60 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week. Steve’s wife recently joined a local senior’s tennis league and has been bugging him to play tennis with her. Steve hasn’t played tennis in a long time so he signed up for 4 weeks of tennis lessons at the parks and recreation department in his town. After the lessons, he and his wife started playing doubles tennis 2 days per week for an hour each time (60 minutes of moderate intensity activity, 120 minutes per week). He continues to lift weights 2 days per week. Steve has successfully added 180 minutes of moderate intensity activity and now gets a total of 360 minutes per week.
Trading up to vigorous activity.
After doing this level of activity for 4 months, Steve wants to trade some of the moderate intensity activity he does for vigorous intensity activity. He decides that on 2 of the 3 days he uses the stationary bicycle at home, he will instead use the stair climber or elliptical machines at his fitness center. Because one minute of vigorous intensity activity equals about 2 minutes of moderate intensity, Steve plans to do 20 minutes on 2 days each week when he is at the gym. Steve’s activity program now includes—
- 300 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity.
- Mowing the grass and other moderate yard work = 30 minutes.
- Plays 9 holes of golf 2 days per week walking with out a cart = 120 minutes.
- Uses a stationary bicycle at home 1 day per week for 30 minutes = 30 minutes.
- Plays doubles tennis 2 days per week = 120 minutes.
- 40 minutes of vigorous intensity activity (equal to 80 minutes of moderate intensity).
- Stair climber or elliptical machines 2 days per week = 40 minutes.
- Lifts weights at a local fitness center 2 days per week.
Some soreness or aching in joints and surrounding muscles during and after exercise is normal for people with arthritis. This is especially true in the first 4 to 6 weeks of starting an exercise program. However, most people with arthritis find if they stick with exercise they will have significant long-term pain relief. Here are some tips to help you manage pain during and after exercise:
- Modify your exercise program by reducing the frequency (days per week) or duration (amount of time each session) until pain improves.
- Changing the type of exercise to reduce impact on the joints – for example switch from walking to water aerobics.
- Do proper warm-up and cool-down before and after exercise.
- Exercise at a comfortable pace – you should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising.
- Make sure you have good fitting, comfortable shoes.
Signs you should see your health care provider:
- Pain is sharp, stabbing, and constant.
- Pain that causes you to limp.
- Pain that lasts more than 2 hours after exercise or gets worse at night.
- Pain is not relieved by rest, medication, or hot/cold packs.
- Large increases in swelling or your joints feel “hot” or are red.
- CDC Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity — Physical Activity For Everyone.
- National Institute of Aging — Your Every Day Guide to Exercise and Physical Activity
- American College of Rheumatology — Exercise and Arthritis
- American Council on Exercise
- American College of Sports Medicine
- American College of Rheumatology’s Guide to Rheumatology Health Professionals
- Page last reviewed: April 11, 2016
- Page last updated: October 26, 2016
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