Physical activity reduces arthritis pain

The notion may sound daunting if you have arthritis, but if you want to ease joint pain, you must engage in regular activity. Research shows that activity can

  • relieve joint pain and stiffness
  • build stronger muscles that decrease joint stress
  • improve flexibility
  • decrease disease activity

Despite these benefits, most people with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis (RA) get little or no exercise. A Dutch study reported that less than 13 percent of people with knee osteoarthritis followed recommended activity guidelines.

It's not hard to see why arthritis patients avoid physical activity. Many people have the misconception that exercise will worsen their condition. Pain, stiffness and fatigue also make activity difficult. To overcome barriers, try these tips:

  • Take a warm shower before exercising so you're more flexible.
  • Perform gentle stretches before you sleep to ward off morning stiffness.
  • Take pain medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), 30 minutes before working out.
  • If you have rheumatoid arthritis, avoid extreme neck movements and don't put pressure on the back of your neck. And don't work out during a flare-up.
  • If you have osteoarthritis, flex affected joints through a complete range of motion daily by gently moving them as far as possible in every direction.
  • Do daily hand and wrist exercises after washing dishes, when hands are warm.
  • Work out in short bouts of 10 minutes, three times a day.
  • Wear supportive athletic shoes with plenty of cushioning.
  • Walk on flat surfaces.
  • Try aquatic exercises, especially in a heated pool.
  • Avoid high-impact exercises, like running, and twisting and jerky motions.
  • Stretch after physical activity to lengthen muscles and prevent soreness.

Strive for at least two and a half hours a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming and bicycling. Activity doesn't have to be strenuous—gardening, mowing and doing housework count, too, if they increase your heart and breathing rates a bit. Perform muscle-strengthening exercises twice weekly, which can include using resistance bands or dumbbells. Finally, do flexibility movements, such as stretching, modified yoga and tai chi, for up to 15 minutes every day.

You should begin to feel the benefits in four to six weeks. Consult with your doctor to ensure your activities are appropriate and safe.

Source: Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 17 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 01 Sep 2015