Exercise is good, not bad, for arthritis


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

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When pain strikes, it’s human nature to avoid doing things that aggravate it. That’s certainly the case for people with arthritis, many of whom tend to avoid exercise when a hip, knee, ankle or other joint hurts. Although that strategy seems to make sense, it may harm more than help.

Taking a walk on most days of the week can actually ease arthritis pain and improve other symptoms. It’s also good for the heart, brain, and every other part of the body.

A national survey conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that more than half of people with arthritis (53%) didn’t walk at all for exercise, and 66% stepped out for less than 90 minutes a week. Only 23% meet the current recommendation for activity—walking for at least 150 minutes a week. Delaware had the highest percentage of regular walkers (31%) while Louisiana had the lowest (16%). When the CDC tallied walking for less than 90 minutes a week, Tennessee led the list, with 76% not walking that much per week, compared to 59% in the  District of Columbia.

This map shows the percentage of adults with arthritis in each state who walked less than 90 minutes per week during 2011.

This map shows the percentage of adults with arthritis in each state who walked less than 90 minutes per week during 2011.

The findings were published in the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, one of its contributions to Arthritis Awareness Month.

Beyond walking

Walking is good exercise for people with arthritis, but it isn’t the only one. A review of the benefits of exercise for people with osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis) found that strength training, water-based exercise, and balance therapy were the most helpful for reducing pain and improving function. “Swimming or bicycling tend to be better tolerated than other types of exercise among individuals with arthritis in the hips or knees,” says rheumatologist Dr. Robert H. Shmerling, associate professor of medicine at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Exercise programs aim to help people with arthritis:

  • increase the range of motion in the affected joint
  • strengthen muscles
  • build endurance
  • improve balance

You can create an exercise program of your own, with help from a trusted doctor, nurse, or physical therapist. Or you can try one that’s been developed by arthritis experts. Examples include the Fit and Strong! program from the University of Illinois at Chicago, or one of several programs developed by the Arthritis Foundation: its Exercise Program, Walk with Ease program, or Aquatics program.

The fatigue, pain, and stiffness caused by many types of arthritis present a barrier to exercise—but these are the same symptoms that tend to improve with regular exercise.

If you have arthritis and don’t currently exercise, start slow. Take a five-minute stroll around your block, swim, or workout on an exercise bicycle. Do it every day, and then gradually increase the time spent exercising or how hard you exercise, but not both at once. If you have heart disease or other health issues, check with your doctor before embarking on an exercise program.

“If exercise was a newly developed medicine, it would be a blockbuster,” says Dr. Shmerling. “It has an excellent safety profile, and enormous benefits for people with arthritis, heart disease, and a long and growing list of other health problems.”


  1. Christina Morales

    Exercise is painful when we got arthritis, but it is good for affected joint. Really good to read this arthritis article.
    Keep sharing healthy information. Thanks for sharing.
    Best Regards

  2. Corporate Fitness

    You are absolutely right.Exercise is good for remove arthritis pain. It also need to be practiced in a perfect way by a doctor’s instruction or a trainer help.

  3. Running with Hip Pain

    This is a pretty good overview. I myself have dealt with a variety of hip pain over the years while running. I have found a good foundation of strength exercises and keeping an eye on overtraining has helped incredibly.

  4. The Florida Knee and Orthopedic CEnters

    Great article. Our practice (The Florida Knee and Orthopedic Centers) wrote a blog post regarding the exact same subject not too long ago. Gentle exercise sure can be a great non-surgical treatment to ease the severe pain caused by arthritis.

  5. Charles Alberti

    Your are right and you use a trampoline with enclosure to begin.

  6. Boot Camp Sydney

    Exercise is crucial for people with arthritis. It increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain, and helps combat fatigue. Of course, when stiff and painful joints are already bogging you down, the thought of walking around the block or swimming a few laps might seem overwhelming.

  7. Abdullah Al Mamun

    I agree with this findings. But this is not new to me. I have been a patient of arthrytis for 35 years. I am now 50 years of age. I had been to hospitalised three times due to arthrytis at a period of 6 months. I do walking 160 minutes in a week regularly. Actually walking help build confidence that sufferers can walk like normal people. Walk with slow pace is necessary. Many arthritis patient can share their experiences with others. Besides doctors advice is also helpful. I thank Harvard Medical team for this report.
    Abdullah Al Mamun


    What about GOUT?
    Is it possible -for example- to have a HMS recomended/forbiden guide for selecting and preparing foods for Gout patients?

  9. Stephen Trevathan

    Hello, I am reaching out to as many people as I can this month who are talking about Arthritis Awareness Month. This year, we wanted to show our support for this great cause by putting together this brand new infographic for National Arthritis Awareness Month! I know that the statistics concerning this medical condition can be rather shocking, especially when looking at the number of who have been disabled from their condition. There are still a number of misconceptions surrounding arthritis, but with this infographic I think that it could help dispel some of these, at least for those people who get a chance to see it. If you are interested, please check it out at: http://www.availclinical.com/news/raising-awareness-for-arthritis/

  10. James Smith

    It’s all true. I walk 20 to 30 minutes a day just for the exercise. That’s not counting any other walking I do each day. I also do over 1,000 push ups a week and other exercises such as sit ups and climb 25 flights of steps a day.

    I am 70, have a small problem with my hands, especially the left. Still, I play guitar several hours a day and my hands never feel as good as they do when playing. Exercise does work I’ll I’ll keep doing it until I drop dead; hopefully, while I am doing push ups of climbing my 400 steps a day.

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