Exercise for osteoarthritis – how does it work?

Last modified: September 10, 2019

Exercise constitutes the basic treatment for osteoarthritis. Weight control and lifestyle changes also play an important role, but training and exercise are the main focus. Customized, long-term training is what reduces the symptoms the most over time. Most people notice the results after just a few weeks, and even if this takes longer than pain-relieving medications, the effect also lasts longer. Depending on which joint is affected, and how much pain there is, each person will receive their own training program. A training program should be created together with a physiotherapist. However, it can be difficult to perform the training if osteoarthritis is causing too much pain. This is where pain-relieving medication can complement the training.

Advantages of exercise and training for osteoarthritis.

Even if it may hurt, exercising with osteoarthritis is not dangerous. Instead, sometimes it can be the best thing to do. Stronger muscles that surround the affected joint can absorb much of the load that would be otherwise placed on the cartilage. At the same time, the cartilage is stimulated to repair itself, so that its quality improves. Overall, this causes the symptoms, i.e. pain and stiffness, to decrease.

However, this does not mean that all types of physical activity are suitable for a person suffering from osteoarthritis. High-impact exercise, such as jumping, jogging or making sudden turns, are not recommended. Sports that have a high risk of injury are also not ideal, obviously. This includes soccer and ice hockey. Suitable alternatives can be pole walking, bicycling, swimming, water gymnastics and yoga.

However, exercise is good for many things than just osteoarthritis. For example, it improves everything from balance and fitness to your mood and focus. The risk of being affected by lifestyle-related diseases also decreases significantly.

General recommendations for exercise and training for osteoarthritis

Exercising with osteoarthritis in several joints has many positive health effects. With regular and long-term training, the exercises have an effect on both the pain and the function of the affected joint. A physiotherapist can help select the exercises that are best suited to the individual. This allows the affected person to obtain a personalized program based on what needs to be improved, for example strength, flexibility or balance.

Since osteoarthritis is a chronic disease, it is important to have a long-term, overall perspective on the treatment. The goal is not simply to quickly alleviate the pain, rather to reduce the pain and improve joint function over the long-term.

Water-based exercises for osteoarthritis

Exercising and water, in the form of swimming or water gymnastics, is good for people with osteoarthritis. When you are in the water, there is much less strain on the joints and skeleton. In addition, there is more resistance in the water compared to in the air, which means that swimming, for example, helps to improve both strength and fitness. Exercising in a warm pool can also improve mobility and reduce the pain.

Other forms of exercise for osteoarthritis

Cycling, outdoors or indoors (on an exercise bike) can be good training for osteoarthritis. This activates the large muscles and provides effective fitness training. Exactly as with water gymnastics and swimming, cycling involves a more gentle strain on the joints. However, this assumes that the saddle and steering are correctly installed and that you are using the correct technique when you are cycling. For example, the foot, knee and hip should be in a straight line during the exercise in order to create even load.

Pole walking can also be a beneficial form of exercise. It places less strain on the joints than regular walking and is therefore a good form of exercise for osteoarthritis in the hips, for example. Pole walking does not just improve the pain and functioning, but it also improves fitness. Using the poles rhythmically and having an adjustable pole length that feels comfortable for the shoulders is very important. Remember as well to choose shoes with good shock absorption to reduce the strain.

Training after surgery

Training should always be the first stage in osteoarthritis treatment. Surgery should only be chosen if exercise and training does not produce the desired results. In order to reduce the risks and improve the results, it is important to exercise both before and after the surgery.

Continue reading about exercise vs. medicine for osteoarthritis.