One form of arthritis is osteoarthritis (OA). With OA, the hard tissue that covers the ends of the bones in a joint begins to break down.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 52.5 million Americans over the age of 18 have been diagnosed with arthritis. Around 49.7 percent of adults aged 65 and older and 30.3 percent of people between 45 and 64 suffer from this condition.
There are two main types of arthritis that can affect knees. The most common type of arthritis is OA. The other is rheumatoid arthritis (RA) which affects around 1.5 million Americans. Left untreated, RA may destroy affected joints over time.
Exercise can reduce knee pain caused by arthritis while also improving motion and flexibility.
Even with medications, the knee pain caused by OA can greatly impact on daily life.
However, exercise is another way that people with arthritis of the knee can reduce pain.
By regularly practicing some specific exercises, people can reduce knee pain, improve motion, decrease stiffness, and increase flexibility.
Before you start
People with arthritis should always consult a physician before beginning any exercise routine.
In addition to a doctor's recommendations, there are important things to consider:
- Start slowly. It is important to proceed 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. People should try to keep joints limber by adding movement into their overall lifestyle. They should not just set aside a specific block of time for rigorous exercise while being inactive the rest of the time.
This list is compiled with that goal in mind. It includes a variety of movements that can be practiced at home or work, while standing, seated, and even lying down.
As people get used to the exercises and discover which ones work best for them, they should try adding them into daily activities. Many of these activities can be carried out during household chores or while sitting at a desk.
Any movement practice for knee pain caused by arthritis should be low-impact and easy to perform.
Each of these exercises will help with building strength, improving flexibility, or increasing stamina. This list also includes which muscles are targeted and any precautions to keep in mind.
1. Leg lifts (standing)
Targets: Hips and glutes (buttocks).
Purpose: Leg lifts are an important leg exercise to improve stability, balance, and strength, reducing the impact on the knees.
- Stand against a wall
- Raise a leg to the side without rotating toe to the side; keep toe pointing forward or slightly in
- Avoid leaning to stationary side
- Lower leg down
- Repeat 15-20 times on each side
2. Sit and stand (seated and standing)
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 pain-free in everyday life.
- Sit straight in a chair with feet flat on floor
- Cross arms over chest
- Stand straight up slowly
- Slowly return to seated
- Repeat for 1 minute
3. Kick-backs (standing)
Targets: Hamstrings (back of thigh).
Purpose: This exercise is great for strengthening leg muscles and reducing knee stiffness.
- Stand up straight
- Lift a foot off the floor and bend the knee, bringing the heel toward the buttocks
- Hold for a few seconds, then lower down
- Knees should be aligned and posture straight
- Repeat 10-25 times, and repeat a few times per day
4. The "clam" (lying down)
Purpose: Knee strain is often at least partially due to weak glutes, resulting in too much shock being absorbed by the knee joint. Strengthening the buttocks leads to a reduced impact on knees.
- Lie down on side
- Bend hips and knees to 90 degrees with shoulders, hips, and feet aligned
- Keep feet together
- Lift top knee up as far as possible, then slowly lower it
- Hold for 3-5 seconds and repeat 10-25 times, twice daily
- Repeat on both sides
If lying exercises are too difficult or painful, people can still work their glutes by doing seated buttock clenches or backward leg lifts.
5. Quadriceps stretch (lying down)
Purpose: To improve the flexibility of the quadriceps, and the range of motion for the knee.
- Lie down on stomach
- Place right forearm in front for support
- Bend left knee and grab ankle or shin with left hand
- Gently lift knee off floor until feeling slight stretch
- Hold for a few seconds, repeating alternative sides a few times
- Switch sides
6. Hamstrings stretch (lying down)
Stretching the hamstring can help improve a knee's range of motion.
Purpose: To improve the flexibility of the hamstrings, improving range of motion of the knee.
- Lie down on back with legs outstretched
- Bend right knee and grab the back of thigh with both hands
- Gently pull the leg toward the chest
- Relax arms so knee is pointed straight up
- Straighten this leg toward the sky, or as much as possible
- Bend knee again, then outstretch it once more
- Repeat on both legs for a few times each
7. Leg cross (seated)
Targets: Whole leg, especially quadriceps.
Purpose: To improve the range of motion of knees as well as strengthen every muscle surrounding the knees.
- Cross ankles over each other while contracting the thighs
- Hold to 10-30 seconds
- Switch sides, and do three to four sets per side
- Alternatively, repeat the same exercise with legs outstretched
This movement is great "hidden" exercise that can be done anywhere, even at the office. It also improves posture.
8. Elliptical training
Recumbent bicycles put less weight and strain on the knees than traditional bicycles.
Targets: Arms and legs.
Purpose: A low-impact cardiovascular exercise preferable to running or jogging for those with knee pain or weak knees.
The exercise uses a device called an elliptical trainer, also known as a cross trainer, that copies the movement of walking, running, and climbing.
9. Recumbent cycling
Targets: A low-impact cardiovascular exercise targeting the whole leg.
Purpose: Cycling is usually considered a lower-impact exercise than walking or running. However, cycling on hilly terrain or with incorrect form can put great strain on knees.
A recumbent bike positions the rider in a lying-down position. Doing so reduces the weight and strain on knees. It also decreases the risk of pedaling with the knees pointing outwards, which can be harmful to the joints over time.
Targets: A low-impact cardiovascular exercise targeting the whole body.
Purpose: Swimming is a great form of exercise for people of any age. Many people suffering from arthritis find swimming to be a comfortable, meditative routine that's easy on all joints, especially the knees.
If swimming is too difficult, many of its benefits can also be gained in slower, standing water aerobic exercises performed in shallow water.
Even after practicing these movements for a while, people should always be sure to pay attention to changes in pain. Training regimes can be changed accordingly or stopped altogether.
It is important for people with arthritis of the knee to keep their doctor updated on what they're doing.
People with arthritis of the knee should try to lead an overall healthy lifestyle, make regular visits to their doctor, and continue taking any prescribed medications. Practicing these exercises may also reduce the harmful effects of knee arthritis.