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  • Writer's pictureDonica Baker

Best Exercises for Arthritis

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

How do people with arthritis stay active and prevent a sedentary lifestyle? When “motion is lotion,” how do we listen to our bodies to participate in exercises that benefit our joints without overdoing it and causing more pain or injury?

For my patients with arthritis, I typically recommend low weight-bearing exercises that take the strain away from sensitive joints while building muscle and maintaining cardiovascular health. Although exercises like running can increase wear and tear on the knees and other joints, low weight-bearing exercises can improve range of motion and relieve joint stiffness.

Stationary or Recumbent Bicycling

There is a strong correlation between quadriceps muscle weakness and knee arthritis. The muscles and tendons in our thighs provide traction and stability for our kneecap (patella) and other structures within the knee joint. Losing muscle mass in the quadriceps and hamstrings predisposes us to early knee arthritis. As knee arthritis causes trouble with walking and other activities, most people notice a snowball effect when their knees hurt too much to exercise, and they become weaker and more sedentary over time.

If you want to prevent early arthritis of the knee joints, work on building your quadriceps muscle and strengthening the other muscle groups within the thighs. Stationary or recumbent bicycling is a great way to do this when you have arthritis without putting too much strain on the weight-bearing joints of the lower extremities, such as the hips, knees, ankles, and feet. As your quadriceps muscle becomes stronger over time, you will notice an easier time with everyday activities such as going up and down the stairs or squatting down to pick up an object.


Just as building quadriceps muscle strength is beneficial to the knees, building our core strength is crucial to maintaining integrity of the spine and sacroiliac joints which can be affected in arthritis. Weakness of the core muscles predisposes us to injuries of the spine and lower back, such as degenerative disc disease and herniated discs.

A lot of people think that core strength is just in the abdominal muscles. Core strength actually wraps all the way around our midsection and includes the paraspinal muscles of the mid to lower back. If these muscles are weak, we could easily hurt our back while attempting to lift something like a box or suitcase.

Using a rowing machine is a great way to strengthen the muscles around our core all the way around. Yes, rowing will help you slim down your abdomen, but it will also help to strengthen the paraspinal muscles that stabilize the spine, which is important in arthritis. Working on strong core strength also helps with maintaining good posture and preventing spinal arthritis from slouching.

Water Aerobics or Swimming

Water aerobics is one of the most popular low weight-bearing exercises among my patients with arthritis. Exercising in water can help with weight loss, cardiovascular health, and muscle strength. It also helps improve range of motion of the joints and decreases back stiffness.

Improvements in balance and stability were noted in patients with arthritis who swam on a regular basis or did aquatic therapy. Studies also show that individuals participating in group water aerobics classes experience improvements in mental health and reduction in stress levels.


1. Luan L, Bousie J, Pranata A, Adams R, Han J. Stationary cycling exercise for knee osteoarthritis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Rehabil. 2021 Apr;35(4):522-533. doi: 10.1177/0269215520971795. Epub 2020 Nov 10. PMID: 33167714.

2. Kim B, Yim J. Core Stability and Hip Exercises Improve Physical Function and Activity in Patients with Non-Specific Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2020 Jul;251(3):193-206. doi: 10.1620/tjem.251.193. PMID: 32669487.

3. Barker AL, Talevski J, Morello RT, Brand CA, Rahmann AE, Urquhart DM. Effectiveness of aquatic exercise for musculoskeletal conditions: a meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2014 Sep;95(9):1776-86. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2014.04.005. Epub 2014 Apr 24. PMID: 24769068.

4. Smrcina Z, Woelfel S, Burcal C. A Systematic Review of the Effectiveness of Core Stability Exercises in Patients with Non-Specific Low Back Pain. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2022 Aug 1;17(5):766-774. doi: 10.26603/001c.37251. PMID: 35949382; PMCID: PMC9340836.

5. Medrado LN, Mendonça MLM, Budib MB, Oliveira-Junior SA, Martinez PF. Effectiveness of aquatic exercise in the treatment of inflammatory arthritis: systematic review. Rheumatol Int. 2022 Oct;42(10):1681-1691. doi: 10.1007/s00296-022-05145-w. Epub 2022 May 28. PMID: 35633390.

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