Arthritis can cause pain, stiffness and often inflammation in one or more joints or muscles. Regular exercise can reduce some of the symptoms of arthritis, and improve joint mobility and strength.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. In osteoarthritis, cartilage in the joint deteriorates, and this causes pain and stiffness. Cartilage doesn’t have a blood supply so it relies on synovial fluid moving in and out of the joint to nourish it and take away waste products. Exercise helps the movement of fluid and reduces some of the symptoms of arthritis.
People with arthritis should engage in a balanced and regular exercise regime. If you are not sure which exercises are suitable for you, be guided by your doctor or other health professional, such as a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist. An exercise physiologist is an allied health professional who helps people with their physical activity and lifestyle habits to prevent and manage injuries or chronic conditions.
Arthritis symptoms and exercise
Regular, exercise can have many benefits for people with arthritis. Exercise can:
- facilitate joint nourishment
- ease pain and joint stiffness, and improve flexibility
- build muscular strength and improve balance
- reduce joint deformity and improve posture
- prevent or manage osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) by maintaining bone density
- improve overall health and fitness, and lower stress levels
- help maintain a healthy body weight.
Types of exercise for arthritis
An inflamed, hot or painful joint needs rest, but too little exercise can cause muscle weakness, pain and stiffness. People with arthritis should do some form of physical activity every day.
The exercise you choose should ideally help with:
- mobility – to stretch and maintain or improve the joint’s range of motion and flexibility
- strength – to build muscle strength, provide stability to the joint and improve your ability to perform daily tasks
- cardiovascular fitness – to improve the condition of your heart, lungs and circulation, to provide your body with blood and to improve the ability of your muscles to use the oxygen.
Many types of exercise can help with mobility, strength and cardiovascular fitness at the same time, including:
- swimming or water exercise classes
- tai chi
- walking or Nordic walking (walking with Nordic poles)
- chair exercises
- low-impact aerobics
- strength training
Arthritis and water exercise
Warm-water exercise is particularly helpful if you have arthritis, because your body is supported and the resistance provided by moving through water boosts muscle strength and endurance.
Water exercise involves exercising in a pool, usually heated, and may also be called ‘hydrotherapy’. There are several ways you can exercise in water. The most suitable type of water exercise for you depends on a number of factors such as the type of arthritis you have and how it affects you and your fitness level, ability and interests.
The types of water exercise you can choose include:
- Waves warm-water exercise program run by YMCA and Arthritis and Osteoporosis Victoria – classes are specifically designed for people with musculoskeletal conditions and are run at various YMCA venues in Melbourne.
- Hydrotherapy – is a type of exercise therapy offered by physiotherapists as a group session or as one-on-one training, which is useful if you are new to water exercise or your arthritis is limiting your ability to exercise.
- Gentle water exercise classes – some fitness or recreation centres offer gentle water exercise programs suitable for older adults or people with health conditions such as arthritis.
- Swimming laps at your local pool can also help.
Starting a water exercise program
Venues that may run warm-water exercise classes include recreation centres, fitness centres, public swimming pools and retirement villages. Things you can do before you choose a class include:
- Have a program designed for you by a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist.
- Contact the various fitness and recreation centres in your local area to find out what sort of warm-water classes are on offer.
- Assess the venue. For example, is the pool easy to access? Are the change rooms accessible and comfortable?
- Before choosing a class, make sure it is appropriate to your level of fitness and ability. You may like to watch a class or two from the sidelines.
Once at the pool, safety suggestions include:
- A good way to warm up is to swim gently or go for a walk through the water – be guided by your instructor.
- If you feel light-headed, sick or dizzy at any stage, get out of the water.
- Take care when moving in wet areas around the pool, including in change rooms, to avoid slipping and falls.
- Perform each movement as gracefully and smoothly as you can.
- Keep the body part you are exercising under the water. This may require you to squat or bob down at times.
Arthritis and tai chi
There is good evidence to support the effectiveness of tai chi for people with arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions. There are many styles of tai chi and most are suitable for people with arthritis.
The benefits of tai chi include:
- being suitable for almost anyone
- promoting correct body posture and balance
- integrating the body and mind
- using gentle and circular movements
- being easy to learn for arthritis relief
- being enjoyable.
It is important that your instructor understands and takes special care of people with arthritis. Arthritis and Osteoporosis Victoria can help you to find suitable instructors. You should talk to your doctor or health professional so they can advise you as to whether tai chi is suitable for you.
Exercise cautions and suggestions
Your doctor or health or fitness professional can offer advice that is specific to you. General suggestions on safe exercising include:
- See your doctor before starting any new exercise program. If you have had a joint replaced, find out from your surgeon or health professional which movements you should limit or avoid.
- Pre-exercise screening is used to identify people with medical conditions that may put them at a higher risk of a experiencing a health problem during physical activity. It is a filter or ‘safety net’ to help decide if the potential benefits of exercise outweigh the risks for you. Print a copy of an adult pre-exercise screening tool (pdf) and discuss it with your doctor or exercise professional.
- Don’t exercise a painful, inflamed or hot joint. You can move the joint gently through its range of movement to help reduce stiffness and improve circulation.
- Start gently and increase the intensity of your exercise program gradually over weeks or months.
- Warm up thoroughly beforehand. Cool down after exercise with gentle, sustained movements.
- Pay attention to good technique and try to move smoothly. Don’t force a joint beyond a comfortable range of motion.
- Don’t try to do too much too soon. If you feel out of breath, slow down.
- If your joint feels particularly painful afterwards (for longer than two hours after an exercise session), reduce the intensity of your next exercise session.
- If an activity causes you pain or increases your pain beyond what is normal, then stop this activity.
- Drink plenty of fluids during and after exercising.
- Increase incidental activity in your lifestyle. For example, walk to nearby shops instead of driving.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Exercise physiologist
- Local fitness or aquatic centre
- Community health centre
- Arthritis and Osteoporosis Victoria Tel. 1800 263 265
- Musculoskeletal Help line Tel. 1800 263 265
Things to remember
- Exercise can help reduce the symptoms of arthritis.
- An inflamed, hot or painful joint needs rest, but too little exercise can cause muscle weakness, pain and stiffness.
- Warm-water exercise is particularly helpful for people with arthritis, because the body is supported and the resistance of moving through water boosts muscle strength and endurance.
- Most forms of tai chi will help arthritis sufferers.
- Exercise programs should be planned in consultation with your doctor, physiotherapist, exercise physiologist, or health or fitness professional.
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