Exercise and Osteoarthritis - Getting Started

Polly deMille, RN, RCEP, CSCS
Performance Center
Women's Sports Medicine Center


A regular exercise program is the first step in managing your osteoarthritis and staying well. The proven physical benefits of exercise - improved joint flexibility, strength, fitness, as well as more energy, and better pain relief – will help you optimize your physical mobility now and in the future.

Changing your daily routine to include exercise can be challenging. A little planning ahead can help you find a routine you can stick with and enjoy!

When beginning an exercise program it is important to remember the following tips:

  • Consult with your physician and seek the guidance of an experienced physical therapist – performing the wrong exercises can place undue stress on the joint and exacerbate the condition
  • If you haven’t exercised in a long time, start slowly and ease yourself back in. Plan to simply become more active to start. Start with short 5-10 minute bouts of activity and gradually work up to 30 minutes of accumulated moderate activity most days of the week. With a gradual progression, you’ll avoid getting so sore and tired that you’ll want to stop. Your first goal is consistency.
  • Set reasonable goals as it may take a while to change your habits and for your body to adapt to the demands of exercise. Excessive exercise will leave you sore and discouraged. Plan a gradual increase in activity that includes taking days off and congratulate yourself for each day’s success.
  • Take care of your feet. Comfortable supportive shoes appropriate to your chosen activity are the most important piece of gear you can invest in. Whether you want to walk, bike, or take an exercise class the right shoe will offer you essential cushioning and support.
  • Plan ahead. Life is busy and finding the time to fit in activity can be challenging. Just like you’d plan when you’re going to fit in grocery shopping or appointments, you should plan when you’ll exercise. Some days, that may mean 10 minutes in the morning and another 10 minutes after work. Exercise doesn’t have to be exhausting or lengthy to benefit you. Grab it when you can!

Once you’ve consulted with your physician and made the commitment to start exercising to manage your arthritis, keep in mind the following five elements of a well-rounded exercise routine:

  • Flexibility
    Flexibility refers to your ability to move your joints through their full range of motion. Whether you need to bend over and pick something up or reach for something on a high shelf, flexibility will make your activities of daily life easier. You can take a muscle into a stretch and hold it or you can include activities that involve moving in ways that will increase your flexibility. You should aim for some form of stretching on most days of the week.
  • Muscular Fitness
    Muscular fitness refers to the strength and endurance of your muscles. Muscular fitness will make your activities of daily life easier, whether lifting groceries or climbing stairs. Muscle is a very active tissue with high energy requirements but most people will lose about a half a pound of muscle every year after the age of 25. Strength training can help retain and build muscle. You can use dumbbells, resistance bands, weight machines, or your own body weight to increase your muscular fitness. Try to incorporate strength training exercises 2-3 days a week.
  • Aerobic Fitness
    Aerobic fitness or cardiovascular fitness refers to the ability of your heart, blood vessels, and lungs to efficiently transport oxygen and fuel to your working muscles during activity. Effective aerobic exercise should involve large muscle groups in rhythmic, continuous movement that lasts for at least 10 minutes. Walking, cycling, dancing, and swimming are all activities that can lead to improvements in your aerobic fitness. Try to accumulate at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity on most days of the week.
  • Stability and Balance
    Your body’s “core” – the muscles surrounding your abdomen, hips, lower back and pelvis – is where your center of gravity is located and helps you maintain your balance and stability during your daily activities. Strong core muscles will increase the support and protection for your spine, decreasing your risk of low back pain. A strong core will also help maintain good posture and decrease your risk of falls. Core exercises don’t have to take a long time; try to include them a few times a week.
  • Rest and Recovery
    Your body needs rest for improvements in strength and endurance to occur. Give your body the chance to recover from and adapt to the demands of each exercise session so you will see steady progress. Keep in mind that a well-balanced diet and adequate sleep are also key components to succeed in your exercise program.

Remember, have some fun and take your time to find a routine that you enjoy. Try different types of aerobic exercise, strength and flexibility training, and core exercises. Improving your fitness isn’t done in a week; it’s a lifestyle commitment and it may take you a while to find activities you enjoy. Listen to your body as you go, be patient, and celebrate the improvements you see in your strength, flexibility, endurance and overall mobility!

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