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5 Exercise Tips to Relieve Osteoarthritis Pain

Osteoarthritis (OA) affects many of us—one in four adults in the United States deals with it daily (CDC, 2021).

If you have this common condition, you may also follow the common misconception that your days of being active are over. But this is simply not the case. One of the best things you can do for an arthritic joint is to get moving!  

So don’t hold back anymore—tell yourself, it’s okay to have OA and get back to doing the things you love. Here are a few tips to help get you on your way.

Motion is lotion

Experts agree that exercise is an effective treatment to reduce joint pain and stiffness with OA.  

For one, strengthening muscles around a sore joint can help relieve excess stress and pressure on that area (Tanaka, 2013). If you have an arthritic knee for example, doing exercises like squats that target your quads (in the front of your thigh), your hamstrings (in the back of your thigh), and even other muscles around your hip can lighten the load of every step you take.  

Exercise benefits more than just your joints, too—adding it to your treatment regimen will help boost your energy, lift your mood, maintain your weight, build your bone strength, improve your balance, reduce the risk of falls, and much more.

Some may worry that exercise can increase joint pain, but lack of exercise can actually cause more pain and stiffness. Our joints are made to move—they produce their own version of “oil” as they start moving. Just like adding oil to a squeaky wheel decreases resistance in a machine, the more we move our bodies, the easier it is to keep them going.  

The right way to exercise with arthritis

Before starting an exercise plan, it is always Important to check with your medical provider for clearance. Once you are cleared to begin, talk to a physical therapist to develop a safe plan that works for you.  

When it comes to arthritis, you want to start small. Do not become overwhelmed with thoughts that exercise means you must start climbing mountains or running marathons. To help ease arthritic pain, begin with low impact aerobic activity like walking, swimming, biking, or an elliptical machine. Start slow with ten minutes at a time, slowly working your way up to 150 minutes per week.

Strength training and mobility exercises are also important to further protect your joints. By strengthening the muscles around your joints, you can improve your posture and alignment and reduce the burden your joints feel from everyday life.

Warm up before working out

It is a good idea to warm up a joint prior to exercising, especially a stiff, arthritic joint. Partner with a physical therapist to learn gentle stretches and exercises you can do for vulnerable areas of your body. Placing heat on your joint prior to a warm-up can also help get your blood flowing and relax the affected regions.  

What’s better – heat or ice?

If your joints feel achy, you may be wondering whether heat or ice is better for relief.  

This is usually a case-by-case judgement call, but there are specific things to consider when making this decision:

  • In general, if your joint is red, hot, or swollen, you should avoid heat.  
  • Some find ice helpful after a workout for pain relief. But ice can stiffen a joint, so use it with caution (a general rule of thumb for icing is 20 minutes maximum every two hours as needed).
  • Avoid placing ice or heat directly onto your skin as well—use a barrier like a towel or pad to protect your skin. Always observe your skin before and after to make sure it is not irritated.

Take it day by day

When exercising with arthritis, it is crucial to listen to your body and rest when you need it. Although exercise is helpful, it is also important to balance your routine with adequate downtime. If you experience an arthritic “flare-up,” take a day or two off from your routine to reduce your swelling and relieve your pain.

It is also important to consider the difference between “good pain” (muscle soreness from working new muscle groups) and “bad pain” (the typical arthritic joint pain you know so well). If you experience anything unusual, like extreme fatigue, increased swelling, a warm joint to touch, pain lasting more than one hour after exercising, you may want to reach out to your doctor before proceeding.

How to get started

Joint pain is not something that should hold you back from life. Having a support team by your side to help you make informed decisions can give you the confidence you need to get back to the things you love. Schedule a visit to connect with a Care Team and get started with a personalized program to treat your joint pain all from the comfort of home.

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