How to Exercise Safely When You Have Arthritis

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Updated May 21, 2015.
There are many types of arthritis. Exercises that are particularly helpful for a specific type of arthritis can be recommended by:
Doctors and therapists also know specific exercises for particularly painful joints. There may be exercises that are off-limits for people with a particular type of arthritis or when joints are swollen and inflamed.

People with arthritis should discuss their exercise plans with a doctor. Doctors who treat people with arthritis can include:
  • rheumatologists
  • orthopaedic surgeons
  • general practitioners
  • family doctors
  • internists
  • rehabilitation specialists

What Type of Strengthening Program Is Best?

This varies depending on personal preference, the type of arthritis involved, and how active the inflammation is. Strengthening one's muscles can help take the burden off painful joints. Strength training can be done with:

Correct positioning is critical, because if done incorrectly, strengthening exercises can cause:
  • muscle tears
  • more pain
  • more joint swelling

How Much Exercise Is Too Much?

Most experts agree that if exercise causes pain that lasts for more than 1 hour, it is too strenuous. People with arthritis should work with their physical therapist or doctor to adjust their exercise program when they notice any of the following signs of strenuous exercise:

Should Someone With Rheumatoid Arthritis Continue to Exercise During a General Flare? How About During a Local Joint Flare?

It is appropriate to put joints gently through their full range of motion once a day, with periods of rest, during acute systemic flares or local joint flares.

Patients can talk to their doctor about how much rest is best during general or joint flares.

What Are Some Pain Relief Methods for People With Arthritis?

There are known methods to help stop pain for short periods of time. This temporary relief can make it easier for people who have arthritis to exercise. Your doctor or physical therapist can suggest a method that is best for each patient. These methods have worked for many people:

Moist Heat

Moist heat supplied by warm towels, hot packs, a bath, or a shower can be used at home for 15 to 20 minutes three times a day to relieve symptoms.

Deep Heat

A health professional can deliver deep heat to noninflamed joint areas by using:

Deep heat is not recommended for patients with acutely inflamed joints. Deep heat is often used around the shoulder to relax tight tendons prior to stretching exercises.


Cold supplied by a bag of ice or frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel helps to stop pain and reduce swelling when used for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. It is often used for acutely inflamed joints. People who have Raynaud's phenomenon should not use this method.


Hydrotherapy (water therapy) can decrease pain and stiffness. Exercising in a large pool may be easier because water takes some weight off painful joints. Many community centers have water exercise classes developed for people with arthritis. Some patients also find relief from the heat and movement provided by a whirlpool.


Mobilization therapies include:

When done by a trained professional, these methods can help control pain and increase joint motion and muscle and tendon flexibility.

TENS Units

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) may provide some pain relief. In TENS, an electrical shock is transmitted through electrodes placed on the skin's surface. Patients can wear a TENS unit during the day and turn it off and on as needed for pain control.


Biofeedback may help relax muscles and control your responses to pain.


Relaxation therapy also helps reduce pain. Patients can learn to release the tension in their muscles to relieve pain. Therapists may be able to teach relaxation techniques.

Acupuncture / Acupressure

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese method of pain relief. Researchers believe that the needles stimulate deep sensory nerves that tell the brain to release natural painkillers.

Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but uses pressure instead of using needles.
Source: NIH Publication No. 01-4855  

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