Adjusting With Age

Easy Ways to Adapt Exercises When You Have Arthritis

Don’t miss out on exercise benefits. Use these shortcuts to avoid overloading arthritic joints.

You might think that exercising would be harmful when you have osteoarthritis, a degenerative wearing away of cartilage in the joints. In reality, exercising is one of the most helpful strategies for living with the condition. “Arthritic joints like movement. The pain and stiffness tend to get better once you get going,” says Clare Safran-Norton, clinical supervisor of rehabilitation services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

But because you have arthritis, you may need to exercise differently to avoid injury and pain.


There are several aspects of exercise that help you feel better when you have arthritis. One is repetitive motion. As you move your arms or legs back and forth, your body pumps a natural lubricant called synovial fluid into the joints. That’s the “grease” that makes it a little more comfortable to move.

Another aspect is muscle strengthening. The stronger your muscles, the better they’re able to support your joints and absorb the pressure you place on them. That helps reduce arthritis pain.


As helpful as exercise is for osteoarthritic joints, it can also lead to injury if you’re not careful. For example:

  • Lifting too much weight overhead can irritate arthritic shoulder joints or even lead to a tear in the rotator cuff (the group of tendons that helps you raise and rotate your arm).
  • Running or walking aggressively on pavement places a lot of force on arthritic knees and hips, which may worsen pain.
  • Doing deep squats increases pressure on arthritic knees, which can also make pain worse.

In addition, says Safran-Norton, “exercising with tight muscles may limit motion in your joints, which can create abnormal wear patterns on the joint surfaces and possibly lead to degenerative changes.”


You can avoid the risks by adapting exercise to your needs and making sure you don’t place excessive force on your joints. That may mean ditching high-impact classes that include a lot of jumping and opting for low-impact classes or trying a pool aerobics class. “The water makes your body more buoyant, and the warmth of the water may make your muscles relax so that you can move with greater ease,” Safran-Norton explains.

Other good class choices are tai chi and yoga, both of which involve movements that gently stretch and strengthen your muscles.

At the gym, Safran-Norton suggests using a stationary bicycle or elliptical machine for low-impact aerobic conditioning. When using dumbbells or using weight machines, try lighter weights with more repetitions.

You can also modify body-weight exercises. For example, modify push-ups by leaning against the wall instead of doing them on the floor. Modify squats by lowering your body only slightly (see “Move of the month”).

Move of the month: Squat

Movement: Modify a squat by standing up straight with your feet hip-width apart, hinging forward at your hips, and bending your knees to lower your buttocks only six inches. Place your hands on your thighs for support. Return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.


Safran-Norton advises warming up the muscles before exercising. Try a few minutes of marching in place, and then static (30-second) stretches of the shoulder, arm, hip, and leg muscles. (People who do not have arthritis are advised to stretch after working out.)

When strengthening muscles, pay special attention to the ones that support your arthritic joints. If you have knee arthritis, Safran-Norton recommends that you focus on the quadriceps (in the fronts of the thighs), the hamstrings (in the backs of the thighs), and the gluteal muscles (in the buttocks). For hip arthritis, she recommends strengthening those same muscle groups as well as the stomach muscles.

Start slowly for each workout session; don’t push your body if an exercise is painful; and cut back on activity if your joints become warm, red, or painful. But don’t forgo exercise and lose out on its benefits.

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