Tips for Exercising with Arthritis

Edited by
Frederick A. Matsen III, M.D.
Used with Permission.

Last updated February 19, 2003

Tips for Exercising

Communicate with your doctor

Talk with your doctor or therapist to decide what types of exercises are best for you. Your decision will be based on what type of arthritis you have, which joints are affected, what you like to do, where you live and other factors.

If you find a program on your own and you have serious joint problems, show a copy of the exercises to your doctor or therapist. They may suggest ways to modify the exercises to protect your joints, or may suggest other exercises to add to the program.

When to exercise

In general, it is best to exercise:

  • at a specific time and place
  • when you have the least pain and stiffness
  • when you are not tired
  • when your arthritis medication is having the most effect

Here are a few more tips about exercise times:

  • Try exercising at different times of day until you decide what is best for you.
  • Exercise on a regular basis: try to do range of motion exercises daily and your other exercises every other day. If you miss several days, you may need to start again at a lower level. If you must miss a day, just pick up again where you left off.
  • Don’t do strenuous exercises just after you eat or just before you go to bed. Wait at least two hours after a meal. Do gentle range-of-motion exercises in the evening. This helps reduce morning stiffness for some people.

Before exercising

Massage the stiff or sore areas or apply heat and/or cold treatments to the area. Heat relaxes your joints and muscles and helps relieve pain. Cold also reduces pain for some people. Here are some ways you can apply heat or cold:

  • Take a warm (not hot) shower before you exercise.
  • Apply a heating pad or hot pack to the sore area.
  • Sit in a warm whirlpool.
  • Wrap a bag of ice or frozen vegetables in a towel, and place it on the sore area.

Be sure to apply the heat correctly! Mild heat will give you results. It should feel soothing and comfortable, not hot. Apply it for about 20 minutes at a time. Use cold for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.

Warm up first. Do gentle range-of-motion and strengthening exercises at least 10 to 15 minutes before more vigorous exercise. Begin your activity at a slow pace and gradually work to a faster pace. This helps avoid injuries.

Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Your clothes should be loose and in layers so you can adapt to changes in temperature and activity. Your shoes should provide good support and the soles should be made from non-slip, shock-absorbent material. Shock-absorbent insoles can also make your shoes more comfortable.

During exercise

Don’t hurry. Exercise at a comfortable, steady pace and give your muscles time to relax between each repetition. For range-of-motion and flexibility, it is better to do each exercise slowly and completely rather than to do many repetitions at a fast pace. You can gradually increase the number of repetitions as you get into shape.

Breathe while you exercise. Don’t hold your breath. Counting out loud during the exercise will help you breathe deeply and regularly.

Move swollen, painful joints gently. Ask your doctor or therapist how to adapt your regular exercises on days when your joints are more painful and swollen than usual.

After exercising

Cool down for five to 10 minutes after exercising. This helps you cool off, lets your heart beat slow down, and helps your muscles relax. To cool down, simply do your exercise activity at a slower pace, such as walking slowly. Also try gentle stretching to avoid stiff or sore muscles the next day.

At first, it may be hard to start moving your stiff, sore joints. Keeping your goals and the benefits of exercise in mind will help you during this time. Try to gently move your joints by yourself. If you need help, ask a therapist who is trained to help people with arthritis. The therapist can also train your friends or family members to help you.

If you’re having a flare

Exercises that seem easy one day may be too much on days when your joints are more painful and swollen. When this happens, cut back on the number of exercises. Gradually add more when you can. If you notice a big change in what you are able to do, talk to your doctor or therapist about it.

Do not attempt fitness exercises when your joints are swollen and painful. If just one or two joints are swollen or painful, you can adapt your exercises to put less stress on those joints. For example, if your knee flares up, switch to exercises in water instead of walking.

Know when to stop

Stop exercising right away if:

  • you have chest tightness or pain, or severe shortness of breath
  • if you feel dizzy, faint, or sick to your stomach

If these symptoms continue, contact your doctor.

Stop exercising if you have muscle pain or a cramp. Gently rub and stretch the muscle. When the pain is gone, continue exercising with slow, easy movements.

Know your body’s signals. During the first few weeks, you may notice that your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, and your muscles feel tense when you exercise. You may feel more tired at night, but awake feeling refreshed in the morning. These are normal reactions to exercise that mean your body is adapting and getting into shape.

Don’t do too much: you’ll know you have done too much if you have joint or muscle pain that continues for two hours after exercising, or if your pain or fatigue is worse the next day. Next time, decrease the number of times you do each exercise, or do them more gently. If this doesn’t help, ask your therapist about changing the exercise. A good general rule to remember is, to stop exercising if you start having sharp pain or more pain than usual. Pain is your warning signal.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Be sure to visit the Glucosamine Product Guide for a review of commercially available glucosamine products broken down by 9 different categories such as price per month, quality and type. Learn what the best products out there are and how we ranked each.