Plus, how to exercise safely to avoid worsening any pain.

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If you have arthritis pain, exercising might be the last thing on your mind—but regular exercise can not only improve your symptoms, it can also help prevent future pain from occurring. That's because pain and lack of movement work in a cycle—one can cause the other.

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Credit: Getty Images

"Pain inhibits movement, and then the muscles around the joint become tight, limiting normal function of the joint and decreasing the range of motion," John Gallucci Jr., DPT, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy tells Health. "When you have a stiff joint [and then] go outside that range of motion, it causes pain."

Low-impact exercise is one of the best and easiest ways to break this cycle, but not all kinds of exercise are good for people with arthritis pain. Here's what you can do, along with why and how you should incorporate exercise into your daily routine if you're struggling with arthritis.

What are the benefits of exercising with arthritis?

Just like for people without arthritis, exercise is good for your body and mind: it boosts your mood and energy levels, acting as a natural source of endorphins, and often improves daytime alertness and nighttime sleep.

For people with arthritis, exercise can also reduce your joint pain, increase your range of motion, and help you feel stronger and more flexible. These results may be seen with even mild exercise, as long as you're doing something to regularly move your body.

"Patients hurt and they don't want to move, but then they gain weight, have a higher risk for fractures and falls, and lose their range of motion," Jonathan Greer, MD, rheumatologist with Arthritis & Rheumatology Associates of Palm Beach and medical advisor to CreakyJoints, tells Health. Dr. Greer advises people with arthritis to exercise early on in their diagnosis to stay as healthy as possible.

Which exercises are the best for arthritis pain?

Swimming

For the gold standard in low-impact exercise, both Dr. Greer and Dr. Gallucci suggest swimming or water aerobics. It's joint- and cardio-friendly at the same time, plus has some other arthritis benefits. "In a pool that's between 70 to 85 degrees, swimming is a non-weight bearing exercise [that also gives you] aerobic activity, plus the warmth of water helps with circulation as well," explains Dr. Gallucci. Improving circulation can also improve joint health, carrying important oxygen and nutrients to joint tissue, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Light aerobic exercise

Any kind of exercise that gets your heart pumping is good for your cardiovascular system, which has the added benefit of helping you manage your weight. That's not all, though: Dr. Gallucci says aerobic exercise also lubricates your joints, emphasizing that our bodies are "locomotive tools" that are meant to be used (the phrase "use it or lose it" applies here).

Still, you want to be mindful of the type of aerobic exercise you choose. A Zumba class or outdoor run may be too high-impact for you, but taking a daily walk around your neighborhood, riding your bike or taking a spinning class, or speed-walking on a treadmill are great ways to engage your cardio health without damaging your joints.

Yoga and Pilates

Whether at-home or in-person, a yoga or Pilates class can go a long way toward increasing your balance, range of motion, and flexibility. These activities are low impact but utilize many parts of your body and can give you a moderate cardio workout, as well, in some cases.

Plus, yoga and Pilates often have benefits for your mental health as well: you may notice you are more relaxed, less anxious, sleep better, and have overall better mood and energy levels when you incorporate these exercises into your routine. (Less stress and more rest means less overall tension and strain on your muscles and joints, FYI.)

Stretching

It might seem basic, but sometimes simple is best. Especially if you're new to working out, stretching is a great way to utilize your joints and muscles without injuring yourself. You can do full body stretches or isolate individual body parts if you have pain specific to your hands, fingers, knees, or neck. Either way, static stretching (where you hold a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds at a time before releasing) can prevent and manage arthritis pain.

Strength training

According to the Arthritis Foundation, strong muscles can support and protect affected joints, so strength training is a smart addition to your exercise routine.

One 2001 study published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism looked at the effects of strength training on people with RA over two years, and found that patients who performed strength training as little as once or twice per week experienced an improvement in physical strength, joint function, and disease activity.

Dr. Gallucci suggests using a variety of equipment to do strength training, including resistance bands, hand weights, and dumbbells, and emphasizing lightweight high-repetition movements (versus fewer repetitions with heavier weights) so as to avoid putting stress on joints.

Range of motion exercises

Range of motion refers to how fully a joint can move within its parameters. For example, your knee is designed to flex up to 135 degrees at its healthiest range of motion; once you fall below about 105 degrees, your ability to perform basic tasks will suffer. "Most arthritic knee patients can't get past 90 degrees range of motion," says Dr. Gallucci, "which inhibits their daily life, like their ability to sit comfortably on the couch or even use the toilet without pain."

Consistently using arthritis-affected joints for range of motion exercises (such as bending and flexing, stretching your limbs out to their full length, rotating your head, and rolling your shoulders) will, over time, increase your joints' range of motion. Unlike some other exercises that should be done in moderation, these movements can usually be done every day.

How to exercise safely with arthritis

Although exercise is important to maintaining your physical and mental health when you have arthritis, it's also important to know how to exercise correctly to avoid overuse, inflammation, and injury. Keep the following seven tips in mind before you start or change your exercise plan (and, of course, it's smart to always consult with your physician before trying anything new).

  1. Stretch before and after. Warm-up and cool-down with a few stretches to keep your joints and muscles limber, prevent injury, and ease into your exercise routine.
  2. Avoid high-impact exercise. Too much jostling and strain on your joints can not only worsen arthritis pain, but it can cause further inflammation of your affected joints. You may want to stay away from activities like running, cross-training, contact sports, and intense cardiovascular aerobic exercise.
  3. Use the right "tools." Everything from the weight of your kettlebells to the style of your sneakers can impact how well—and how safely—you exercise with arthritis. If you're not sure what to use or wear while working out, ask your doctor or a physical therapist for tips.
  4. Apply heat and ice. Generally, using heat before a workout and applying ice, if needed, after exercise works well together. Heat will relax muscles and make it easier to perform physical activities, while ice can reduce any swelling or inflammation from your workout.
  5. Start small and slow. If you've never had much of an exercise routine before, it's important to build up your body's tolerance. Do what you comfortably can until it becomes a little easier, and then slowly start to add on from there. Make sure you also allow yourself plenty of time to rest after exercising; the Arthritis Foundation has a list of gentle movements you can do on "rest days" to keep your joints loose.
  6. Don't ignore pain. Some people might be able to "push through the pain" without any side effects, but this isn't good advice for people with arthritis. Some mild discomfort may be normal if this is a new-to-you activity, but you shouldn't power through moderate pain. Instead, take a break or modify your activity until it's more comfortable to you.
  7. Ask a physical therapist for help. If you're struggling with where to start or how to maintain a safe exercise routine, Dr. Greer suggests talking to a physical therapist: "We refer to PTs all the time [because it's a great idea to] work hand-in-hand with a PT for joint protection needs and help with range of motion."
  8. Try not to be deterred. Like anything else, exercise takes some practice. You may also have good days and bad days, but a bad day doesn't mean you have to stop exercising altogether; do what you can, as often as you can.

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