Exercising with Arthritis


Osteoarthritis is the inflammation of a joint or joints that causes pain, swelling, and stiffness and is leading cause of disability among older adults. However, the goal for someone who has arthritis is to be as active as the condition allows.


Osteoarthritis is a deterioration of cartilage and the resultant overgrowth of bone often due to “wear and tear”. This results in further wear by allowing bone to grate against bone. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, this painful condition affects more than 20 million people in the United States alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), arthritis is a leading cause of disability in the United States. The CDC has found that each year in the United States arthritis is responsible for:

  • 10,000 deaths
  • 750,000 hospitalizations
  • 8 million people with activity limitations
  • 36 million ambulatory care visits. In addition to the costs of medical care, arthritis directly affects the ability to enjoy many everyday activities.

Arthritis is associated with the joints. The joints are held in place by tough, fibrous ligaments and a joint capsule. Smooth cartilage covers the ends of the bone endings in order for them to move easily. A thin membrane called the synovium covers the inner lining of the joint capsule and secretes joint-lubricating fluid known as synovial fluid. Osteoarthritis (OA), also called degenerative arthritis, is associated with age. By 55, about 80% of the population shows some X-ray evidence of this condition. OA begins to develop when the slippery cartilage covering the bone endings degenerates. The onset of OA is associated with factors such as body misalignment and heredity.

Another form of the disease, known as rheumatoid arthritis, is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of the synovial membrane and can also result in bone loss. Like OA, the risk of rheumatoid arthritis increases with age.

Other Risk Factors

Obesity can lead to the early onset of the disease because of the extra stress it places on the weight-bearing joints such as the hips and knees. And while arthritis is generally associated with people age 55 and over, younger persons also can develop arthritis from joint injuries and trauma.


The pain of arthritis goes beyond any affected joints and tissues. Arthritis pain sufferers may experience feelings of depression, anger, anxiety and loss of self-esteem.

If someone suffers from arthritis, this should not compromise his or her overall fitness. The goal for someone who has arthritis is to be as active as possible. If activity stops because of limitations in one or a few joints, the whole body can suffer as a result.

Exercising with Arthritis

Arthritis can affect a person’s willingness to perform exercise and this can become a vicious cycle. There is often an anticipation of pain that can be enough for someone with arthritis to avoid certain activities altogether, which in turn can contribute to less physical activity in general. This reduced activity can lead to reduced mobility, which exacerbates the condition. With that in mind, it is important to realize that arthritis pain sufferers can perform any type of non-load bearing exercises that the specific joint condition will allow (within reason). This can mean the performance of swimming, cycling, and walking, among other activities. Other activities may include resistance exercise programs to the brisk performance of the activities of everyday living.

Exercise programs that include range of motion, flexibility, strength and endurance exercises can have tangible benefits such as:

  • less muscle shortening and joint contraction;
  • improved circulation in affected joints;
  • increased mobility and range of motion;
  • decreased likelihood of disability and deformity, and improved sense of well-being and self-esteem.

In order to derive the most benefit from exercise, arthritis pain sufferers should accommodate the affected joints in order to make staying physically active an enjoyable experience. Some suggestions include:

  • Performing 30 minutes total of activity each day. These can be performed in 10-minute intervals.
  • Performing moderate resistance exercise reduces joint pain.
  • If there are multiple joints affected, it might be appropriate for the person to consult with a qualified rheumatologist.
  • In cases of severe, multi-joint pain, physical therapy may be necessary.
  • Seeking out support from peers. Many communities have support groups for arthritis pain sufferers, such as People with Arthritis Can Exercise (PACE).


1. David M Lee et al. Rheumatoid Arthritis. The Lancet, Vol. 358. September 2001.

2. http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis_related_stats.htm

3. http://www.niams.nih.gov/



These resources are for the purpose of personal trainer growth and development through Continuing Education which advances the knowledge of fitness professionals. This article is written for NFPT Certified Personal Trainers to receive Continuing Education Credit (CEC). Please contact NFPT at 800.729.6378 or [email protected] with questions or for more information.
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