Knee Osteoarthritis & Exercise


Osteoarthritis of the knee is a common ailment. This disease can cause pain, stiffness and reduced mobility. If your knee is painful, you may think that it is best to avoid exercise. However, the less exercise you do, the more painful and stiff your knee may become. The right kind of exercise can actually improve your symptoms. The first step is to talk to your doctor or physical therapist about the right kind of exercise for your knee osteoarthritis.


Osteoarthritis, which is sometimes called degenerative arthritis, is a condition where cartilage wears away. In a healthy joint, cartilage is found between the ends of the bones in many of your joints including the knee. According to the National Institutes of Health, knee osteoarthritis can occur with age and normal wear and tear. Your cartilage naturally deteriorates with time and use. However, if you tend to play high-impact sports, participate in activities that require repetitive use of the knee joint, are overweight, have a family history of osteoarthritis or are over age 45, your risk for this condition rises.


Getting regular exercise that is prescribed by your doctor is the best thing you can do for your knee osteoarthritis says the Journal of the American Medical Association. The right kind of exercise will help to strengthen and stabilize the knee joint and keep your knee flexible. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there is a lot you can do to help keep your joints moving. In addition, if you are overweight, you are placing extra pressure on your knee joints. Exercise can help you to shed those extra pounds, which in itself will make your knee feel better. If your osteoarthritis is severe, you may need to take medications or use splints to control your symptoms so you can tolerate exercise. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you find the right medications and brace if necessary.


There are three main types of exercise, all of which are good for knee osteoarthritis. The first is aerobic or cardiovascular exercise. This type of activity requires moving fast enough to raise your heart rate, break a light sweat and make you breathe a little harder. It is the best form of exercise to help you shed those extra pounds. Being overweight not only increases your risk of developing osteoarthritis, but it can also speed it’s progression. The Arthritis Foundation states that, “For every pound of body weight you gain, your knees gain 3 pounds of added stress.” For every pound you lose, there is that much less stress and wear and tear on the joint. You also need to incorporate strength training exercises into your routine. These are movements that you do slowly and with control against some kind of resistance such as weights, tubing, machines or your own body weight. Stronger muscles will help you climb stairs, get in and out of chair and lift with less pain and without placing too much stress on your knees. The third type of exercise is stretching or flexibility exercises. These are exercises where you hold a position for 30 seconds or longer and try to relax into the stretch. The goal is to lengthen and release tight muscles, tendons and ligaments. When the muscles, ligaments and tendons surrounding a joint are tight, they can pull on the joint and cause pain.


Aerobic exercises should be done on as many days of the week as possible. The goal for weight loss is to get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days. If this is too much to start with, you can split it up into smaller sessions throughout the day and gradually work up to 30 minutes. With strength training you want to do at least one set of eight to twelve repetitions for all of the major muscles groups that support the knee. This includes the quadriceps, hamstrings, inner and outer thigh, the calves and the shins. You want to give your muscles a day of rest in-between so you work out with weights every other day. Stretching exercises need to be done at least once per day. You can also do them throughout the day whenever you feel stiff. The focus should be on stretching the knee joint and moving it through its full range of motion. If your knee is painful you can try sitting in a hot tub, taking a hot shower or using a heating pad on your knee before you stretch to help relax and loosen the joint.


Walking is one of the best things you can do. It is free, does not require equipment and you can do it on your schedule. If walking on land is too painful, try water walking. This will allow you to move without placing stress on the joint. Strength training exercises can be done at home with ankle weights and tubing. You can do standing leg lifts in every direction or seated exercises. You can also strength train in the water as well. If traditional forms of exercise are not for you, try a Tai Chi class. ‘Arthritis Today’ magazine states that Tai Chi can help to reduce pain and stiffness while improving mobility and balance. If you are unsure where to start, the Arthritis Foundation has specialized programs on both land and in water that can help you to get started. If you are new to exercise, or new to having arthritis, it is best to work in person with a therapist or trainer, because moving the wrong way can make your knee arthritis worse.

About this Author

Lori Newell of Living Well Yoga and Fitness holds a master’s degree in health promotion. She is a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor. Newell has taught classes for the general public and those with chronic illness for 25 years. She has four books and writes for many sites and magazines including the “International Journal of Yoga Therapy” and eHow.