I have arthritis. Can I exercise? Should I?

with advice from David P. Thompson, PT, DPT, OCS

I have arthritis. Can I exercise? Should I?

Arthritis is one of the more common conditions, especially as people age. According to the CDC, as many as 50 million adults in the U.S., or 1 in 5, have been diagnosed with arthritis, and the numbers are expected to grow as our population ages. While there are many types of arthritis, the most prevalent is osteoarthritis, caused by the wearing away of cartilage in joints, especially the knees and hips.

Arthritis can be extremely painful and often debilitating. According to David P. Thompson, a physical therapist at Allegheny Chesapeake Physical Therapy (a Physiquality member in Pennsylvania), “Patients with arthritis frequently report a variety of symptoms, including pain, stiffness, swelling, warmth in the joint, aching, joint deformity, difficulty with bearing weight, trouble with walking, and general loss of function.”

It may seem counter-intuitive, but exercise has been shown to help fight the effects of arthritis, reducing pain and improving movement. And while there are myriad benefits of exercise, two in particular are likely to benefit those suffering from arthritis:

  • Exercise has been shown to rejuvenate muscles in healthy senior citizens.

    Weight loss. Having more weight on your frame can exponentially increase the pressure on your joints. According to the National Council on Aging, “Losing just one pound of body weight will take four pounds of pressure off your knees.”

  • Stronger muscles. Even if one has not exercised in some time, exercise — and resistance training in particular — has been shown to rejuvenate muscles in healthy senior citizens. In a 2007 study of older adults, (the average age was 70 years old), resistance training was shown to reverse some of the effects of aging.

David says that arthritis patients often benefit from programs that target the following in a graduated manner:

  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Range of motion
  • Joint mobility
  • Limb stabilization
  • Weight-bearing tolerance
  • Balance
  • Task-specific issues

Keeping the exercises low-impact can reduce pain during the workout, and there are a variety of low-impact activities that can build strength, including aquatic aerobics, golf, yoga, tai chi and even walking. (Want more suggestions? Check out the National Institute on Aging’s ideas on how to stay active while aging at go4life.nia.nih.gov.)

Consult your doctor or physical therapist before starting a new program.When starting a new program, talk to your doctor about what is best for your particular body — she may recommend avoiding certain types of activity or adapting particular exercises. It may also be a good idea to consult your physical therapist. David points out that a physical therapist is the ideal person to “identify painful structures, judge the stage of disease progression and inflammatory response, recognize functional impairments, and then provide a customized program that will address each individual’s deficits and protect the joint into the future.” In addition, he says, a PT can also give advice on how to compensate during some activities; ergonomic recommendations, both at the office and around the house; instruction on how to sit and stand with proper posture; and training on how to lift properly, to avoid back pain and injury.


Want to find a physical therapist for your arthritis issues?
Search for a Physiquality clinic in your neighborhood.

David P. Thompson, PT, DPT, OCS David P. Thompson, PT, DPT, OCS, is a physical therapist at Allegheny Chesapeake Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member with 10 locations in Pennsylvania. A board-certified orthopaedic specialist, he recently earned his doctorate of physical therapy from Slippery Rock University. David’s clinical interests include orthopedics, sports medicine and manual therapy.

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For further information, look through our selection of articles on arthritis, in addition to the below links:

Arthritis advice. National Institute of Aging, October 17, 2013.

Bartolozzi, Arthur. Arthritis: What are my options? The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 2013.

Arthritis: Meeting the challenge of living well. Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 18, 2013.

Workplace ergonomics. Physiquality, November 30, 2012.

National Council on Aging.

Dealing with lower back pain. Physiquality, September 20, 2012.

Brody, Jane. Pursuing an active life with arthritis. New York Times, July 16, 2012.

Stand up straight! Physiquality, December 2, 2011.

Neumann, Janice. Too few with arthritis are exercising, study finds. Chicago Tribune, August 31, 2011.

Boyd, Robynne. Top 10 exercises for people with arthritis. Discovery Fit and Health, May 2011.

Exercise reverses aging in muscle. Arthritis Foundation.

The material and information contained on this Web site is for information only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or consultation.

Consult your personal physician before beginning any exercise program or self-treatment.