Exercise: Natural Remedy for Arthritis


It probably sounds like the worst idea ever. If you’re one of the quarter of Americans with arthritis, your joints are swollen and tender. Sitting hurts. Standing hurts. And here I come, promising relief—if you’ll just give those joints a workout. What? Exercise?

That’s right, exercise. Don’t think I’m crazy or have a sadistic streak. Hear me out. And hear the Mayo Clinic out:

“Exercise is crucial for people with arthritis.”

Not just “important.“ Not just “recommended.” Crucial!

Exercise For Arthritis

Don’t think exercise has to be hard work. It all depends on where you’re starting from.

I’d love to see you running marathons, lifting weights, or swimming like a dolphin. But we can’t expect that.

What we can expect is so powerful in itself—blessed relief. Joints that do their daily work without causing all that pain.

When exercise is part of your treatment program, it not only relieves pain and restores mobility. It can also:

  • Strengthen the muscles around your joints
  • Help you maintain bone strength
  • Give you more energy to get through the day
  • Help you get a good night’s sleep
  • Help you control your weight
  • Enhance your quality of life
  • Improve your balance

Forget “no pain, no gain”

It’s counterintuitive at first glance—surely exercise will aggravate your joint pain and stiffness. But no, the opposite is true. Exercise is a natural remedy for arthritis.

It’s lack of exercise that makes joints painful and stiff.

That’s because keeping your muscles and surrounding tissue strong is crucial to maintaining support for your bones. Not exercising weakens those supporting muscles, creating more stress on your joints.

The new mantra: the more you move, the more you can move.

Easy-does-it exercises

Given the number of people with arthritis, it’s no surprise that you have a lot of great exercise choices. Decide with your doctor or physical therapist which are best for you.

Range-of-motion exercises relieve stiffness and increase your ability to move your joints through their full range of motion. You want something simple? How about just pushing your shoulders forward, then pulling them backward? Or raising and lowering your arms over your head and back? These can be part of a daily routine.

Start with a “set” of 10 shoulder push/pulls and 10 arm lifts, and build up to 15, then 20 of each, with a few seconds of relaxing in between sets. Then do 2 sets of those repetitions (“reps,” in fitness-speak). Then more…you’ll be amazed at how good that feels.

Strengthening exercises help you maintain or build strength in muscles that support and protect your joints. Working with small, hand-held weights—as little as a pound or two—can do a world of good, often with noticeable results after only a few sessions. The weights don’t have to be the dumbbell type. Anything from a brick or stone or the right size can of vegetables or bottle of water does the job. To strengthen your arms, lift your chosen weights several times. Start out by raising the weights to shoulder heights 5 times in a row, pausing, then raising the weights above your head 5 times in a row. Add more repetitions as your strength improves.

When starting a strengthening program, a 3-day-a-week program can help you jump-start your improvement, but 2 days a week is all you need to maintain your gains.

Aerobic/endurance exercise is any activity that makes your heart beat faster, which drives fresh, oxygen-rich blood throughout your system. The benefits are many: flushing potential threats out of your veins and arteries, strengthening your heart, getting you fitter overall, keeping your weight under control, boosting your stamina and energy.

You’ll want low-intensity, low-impact exercises that go easy on your joints. Walking, yes as simple as that, bicycling, swimming, and using an elliptical machine. Try to work your way up to 150 minutes of moderately aerobic exercise per week (that’s only about 20 minutes a day). You can split that time into 10-minute blocks, twice daily, if that’s easier on your joints to start.

Moderate intensity aerobic exercise is the safest and most effective if it’s done most days of the week, but even a couple of days a week is better than no exercise.

Fitness experts have determined optimal degrees of intensity, based on age, weight, heart health, and other factors. Please build your program on their advice.

Body awareness exercises, such as gentle forms of yoga or tai chi, can help you improve balance, prevent falls, improve posture and coordination, and promote relaxation. Be sure to tell your instructor about your condition. And, while you want to push your comfort limits a bit, avoid positions or movements that can cause sharp pain or pinches.

Any movement, no matter how small, can help. Daily activities such as mowing the lawn, raking leaves, and walking the dog count. So does just walking—if you walk fast enough to feel your body is working. You should be able to carry on a conversation while exercising, though your breathing rate will increase. If you can sing, you want to pick up the pace.

Maybe some pain—but more gain

Yes, I’ve promised “no pain.” But that’s only if you start slow and accept that there might be “some pain.”

Joints unaccustomed to even the merest bit of push might complain in the beginning. Don’t be discouraged. Take it as a signal that you’re moving those joints toward health.

That said, don’t push yourself too hard. That can overwork your muscles and worsen your joint pain.

Tips for starters

  • Keep the impact low. Low impact exercises like stationary or recumbent bicycles, elliptical trainers, or exercise in the water help keep joint stress low while you move.
  • Apply heat. Heat can relax your joints and muscles and relieve any pain you have before you begin. Heat treatments—warm towels, hot packs, or a shower— should be warm, not painfully hot, and should be applied for about 20 minutes.
  • Move gently. Move your joints gently at first to warm up. You might begin with range-of-motion exercises for 5– 10 minutes before you move on to strengthening or aerobic exercises.
  • Go slow. Exercise with slow and easy movements. If you feel pain, take a break. Sharp pain and pain that is stronger than your usual joint pain might indicate something is wrong. Slow down if you notice swelling or redness in your joints.
  • Rest a day before repeating strengthening exercises for the same muscle groups two days in a row. Rest a day between your workouts, and take an extra day or two if your joints are painful or swollen.
  • Ice afterward. Apply ice to your joints for up to 20 minutes, as needed, after activity, especially after activity that causes joint swelling.
  • Trust your instincts. Don’t exert more energy than you think your joints can handle. You want to push yourself, but take it easy and slowly increase your exercise length and intensity.
  • Don’t overdo it. You might notice some soreness and fatigue after exercise if you haven’t been active for a while. In general, if you’re sore for more than two hours after you exercise, you were probably exercising too strenuously. Talk to your doctor about when pain is a sign of something serious.

Begin your win

Talk to your doctor about making exercise part of your treatment plan. What types are best for you depends on your type of arthritis and which joints are involved. Your doctor or a physical therapist can work with you to find the plan that gives you the most benefit with the least aggravation of your joint pain.

Let’s get you moving—that’s taking good care.



Last Updated: June 21, 2021
Originally Published: June 21, 2017