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Arthritis causes joints to become painful and swollen. When it affects the knee, it can lead to mobility problems, but exercises can strengthen the muscles around the joint and help the person stay active.
The best exercise program for anyone depends on their individual needs, and a doctor can provide detailed advice about how much exercise to do and which activities work best. However, some basic, low-impact exercises may be useful for many people.
Among the various types of arthritis are osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and psoriatic arthritis (PsA). In this article, we look at some exercises that can help with OA of the knee.
Alternately, find exercises that help with RA pain here and exercise tips for people with PsA here.
Standing leg lifts improve stability, balance, and strength.
Targets: Lateral (outside) glutes.
Purpose: Leg lifts can be an important way to improve stability, balance, and strength, reducing the impact on the knees.
- Stand against a wall.
- Raise a leg to the side without rotating the toes to the side; keep the toes pointing forward or slightly in.
- Avoid leaning to the stationary side.
- Lower the leg.
- Repeat 15–20 times on each side.
Targets: Quadriceps (front of thigh) and glutes.
Purpose: This repetitive motion is central to improving the range of knee movement and overall leg strength. Over time, it will become easier to stand up without pain.
- Sit straight in a chair with the feet flat on the floor.
- Cross the arms over the chest.
- Stand up straight, slowly.
- Slowly sit back down.
- Repeat this for 1 minute.
Kick-backs, performed standing, improve the leg muscles and reduce stiffness.
Targets: Hamstrings (back of the thigh).
Purpose: This exercise is great for strengthening the leg muscles and reducing knee stiffness.
- Stand up straight.
- Lift one foot and bend the knee, bringing the heel toward the buttocks.
- Hold for a few seconds, then lower the leg.
- The knees should be aligned and the posture straight.
- Repeat 10–25 times per session.
- Perform these sessions a few times a day.
The clam, which is performed lying down, strengthens the buttocks.
Purpose: Knee strain is often at least partially due to weak glutes, resulting in the knee joints absorbing too much shock. Strengthening the buttocks leads to less impact on the knees.
- Lie to one side.
- Bend the hips and knees to 90 degrees, with the shoulders, hips, and feet aligned.
- Keep the feet together.
- Lift the top knee up as far as possible, then slowly lower it.
- Hold the stretch for 3–5 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
- Aim to do this 10–25 times, twice daily.
This exercise is performed lying down. But if lying exercises are too difficult or painful, a person can work their glutes by doing seated buttock clenches or backward leg lifts.
The quadriceps stretch helps with flexibility and range of motion.
Purpose: To improve the flexibility of the quadriceps and the range of motion of the knee.
- Lie facing downward.
- Place the right forearm in front for support.
- Bend the left knee and grab the ankle or shin with the left hand.
- Gently lift the knee until there is a slight, noticeable stretch.
- Hold for a few seconds.
- Switch sides, and repeat a few times on each side.
This stretch is good for flexibility and range of motion.
Purpose: To improve the flexibility of the hamstrings and boost the knees’ range of motion.
- Lie on the back with the legs outstretched.
- Bend the right knee and grab the back of the thigh with both hands.
- Gently pull the leg toward the chest.
- Relax the arms so the knee points straight up.
- Straighten this leg toward the sky, or as much as possible, and hold for 10–20 seconds.
- Bend the knee again, then stretch it once more.
- Repeat on the other side.
Targets: Arms and legs.
Purpose: This low-impact cardiovascular exercise is preferable to running or jogging for people with knee pain or weak knees.
The Arthritis Foundation recommends using a machine with a control panel that allows a person to adjust the incline and resistance. It should also have two sets of handles, one moving and one stationary, for full comfort and balance.
Elliptical training machines are available for purchase online.
Recumbent bicycles provide even support for the body, putting less weight and strain on the knees, compared with traditional bicycles.
Targets: This low-impact cardiovascular exercise targets the whole leg.
Purpose: Cycling is usually a lower-impact exercise, compared with walking or running. But cycling on hilly terrain or with incorrect form can put great strain on knees. A recumbent bike positions the rider in a reclined position, which reduces the weight and strain on the knees. It also reduces the risk of pedaling with the knees pointing outward, which can harm the joints over time.
Stationary and outdoor recumbent bikes are available for purchase online.
Targets: This low-impact cardiovascular exercise targets the whole body.
Purpose: Swimming can be a great exercise for people of any age, and many people with arthritis find it to be comfortable and meditative. Swimming is easy on all the joints, especially the knees, as the water supports around 90% of the body’s weight.
If swimming is too difficult, a person can gain many of the benefits by doing slower, standing aerobic exercises in shallow water.
Targets: These meditative, mind-body practices can boost physical and mental well-being.
Purpose: Both yoga and tai chi involve breathing techniques and meditation, and they can help maintain body strength, flexibility, and balance. This holistic approach may also benefit a person’s mental health, by reducing the risk of anxiety and depression, for example.
Always consult a physician before beginning any exercise routine. In addition to following the doctor’s recommendations, a person should:
- Start slowly: People with arthritis should be highly attentive to their body’s signals and stop if they experience any pain.
- Incorporate movement into daily life: Keep the joints limber by adding movement throughout each day, rather than being mainly inactive but dedicating one block of time to rigorous exercise.
- Keep exercising even after symptoms improve: Staying fit and active can help prevent further problems. Also, the symptoms may return if a person stops exercising.
- Pay attention to pain: Seek medical care for any severe pain or changes in pain. The exercise plan may also need adjusting.
As people get used to their arthritis exercises, they should try adding them into daily activities. Many exercises can be done during household chores or while sitting at a desk.
Overall, any movement practice for knee pain resulting from arthritis should be low-impact and easy to perform. Each exercise should help build strength, improve flexibility, or increase stamina. The list above was developed with these goals in mind.
Medications alone are unlikely to improve the outcome for someone with knee arthritis. This is why
- weight management, if necessary, to reduce stress on the joints
- self-management programs to help people learn strategies for living with arthritis
- learning about arthritis, including ways to protect the joints
- cognitive behavioral therapy, to help manage pain, mood changes, fatigue, and other related issues
- fitness and exercise
With regular exercise, including low-impact activities such as tai-chi, yoga, and swimming, a person can:
- maintain a moderate weight
- maintain balance and prevent falls
- strengthen the muscles around the joints
Exercise can also benefit mental health and, depending on the setting, may provide more social opportunities.
Exercise is a key part of arthritis treatment. But because arthritis can change over time, it may be necessary to adjust each approach to treatment, including the exercise plan. For this reason, it is important to stay in touch with a doctor.