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Mobility & Falls Prevention
Oct 31, 2023

Exercising and osteoarthritis: everything you need to know

Regular exercise is an important way to help manage osteoarthritis and to keep yourself fit.

According to Arthritis Australia four million Australians live with arthritis and joint pain and that number is expected to grow to 5.4 million by 2030.

Arthritis is a group of conditions affecting the joints. It can be a very painful condition and is the second most common cause of early retirement due to ill health.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form and affects the whole joint including bone, cartilage, ligaments and muscles. Arthritis Australia says although osteoarthritis is often described as ‘wear and tear’, it is now believed to be the result of a joint working extra hard to repair itself.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint but occurs most often in the knees, hips, finger joints and big toe, and it can develop at any age but tends to be more common in people aged over 40 years or those who have had joint injuries.

How can you help manage osteoarthritis?

Regular exercise is an important way to help manage osteoarthritis, relieve pain, lose weight and keep yourself fit.

But if you’ve developed osteoarthritis, some of the exercises you used to do might be too painful or no longer suitable. It is likely you’ll have to modify your routine to stay active.

Talk to your doctor

Before you embark on any new exercise regime, particularly when undertaking exercises for osteoarthritis, you should talk to your doctor and other medical professionals such as a physiotherapist, physical therapist, or exercise physiologist, to make sure you get an exercise program best suited to your condition and general health.

Find out more about osteoporosis.

Try low-impact exercise

Experts recommend aiming for 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day and choosing low-impact exercises to help manage osteoarthritis pain. Some examples are walking, exercising in water, strength training, cycling, yoga and Pilates.

Arthritis Australia says it’s important to get a mix of exercises that include flexibility, muscle strengthening and fitness.

1. Flexibility

Flexibility is important to maintaining or improving the mobility of your joints and muscles.

Queensland Health’s Ageing with Vitality Guide says stretching is a great way to keep your body flexible and limber.

The guide gives detailed descriptions of stretching exercises you can do at home, including for your shoulders, upper arms, upper body, neck, lower back, thighs and calf.

Yoga and Pilates are also great ways of improving your flexibility. According to a Medical News Today article by Hannah Nichols, yoga is low-impact and safe for people when a well-trained instructor is guiding the practice. The article described what yoga is, the different types and risks and side-effects.

Better Health Channel describes Pilates (or the Pilates method) as a series of about 500 exercises inspired by calisthenics, yoga and ballet. Pilates lengthens and stretches all the major muscle groups in the body in a balanced fashion. Not only does it help with flexibility, it is also an effective way of strengthening your body and improving balance.

2. Strengthening

Building and maintaining muscle strength helps to support and take pressure off sore joints, strengthen bones and improve balance.

WebMD says muscle strengthening can come from lifting hand weights, using flexible tubing, even lifting a filled one-litre water bottle.

WebMD's fitness expert Richard Weil says to start a hand-weight program, use weights that you can lift 12 to 15 times with good form. He recommends starting with some simple strengthening exercises and suggests doing two or three sets of eight to 12 repetitions each.

Stop if any of these exercises cause you pain and speak to your doctor for advice.

Biceps curls: Start with elbows bent at the sides. Keeping your upper arm at your side, bring your hand weight up to your shoulder. Lower to original position and repeat with opposite arm. Continue to alternate between sides.

Side lateral raises: With arms down at your sides, raise arms (slightly bent) to shoulder height. Lower and repeat.

Wall push-up: This exercise is great for people who are not able to do a regular push-up. Stand with your feet flat about 30cm from a wall. Place your hands flat on the wall a little wider than your shoulders. Lower your chest to the wall, then push back to the starting position.

Seated hip march: Strengthen your hips and thigh muscles and prevent knee osteoarthritis. It can help with daily activities like walking or standing up. Sit up straight in a chair. Kick your left foot back slightly, but keep your toes on the floor. Lift your right foot off the floor, knee bent. Hold the right leg in the air 3 seconds. Slowly lower your foot to the ground. Do two sets of 10 repetitions. Switch legs after each set. Too hard? Use your hands to help lift your leg.

3. Fitness

Better Health Channel says exercise that gets you moving and increases your heart rate will help improve the health of your heart and lungs. It can also help with endurance, weight loss and prevention of other health problems, such as diabetes. This type of exercise is also called aerobic exercise, cardiovascular exercise or ‘cardio’.

Suggestions include:

  • swimming or water exercise classes
  • tai chi
  • walking or Nordic walking (walking with Nordic poles)
  • chair exercises
  • low-impact aerobics
  • strength training
  • dancing.

Once you’ve decided on a program that suits you, WebMD recommends starting your workout slowly, with a warm-up. It even suggests a warm bath or heat packs before you exercise.

Warm-up exercises can include side bends, shoulder shrugs, arm circles and torso rotations.

Movement itself can warm up muscles so if you're getting ready to swim or walk, your warm-up can be a gentle swim or walk.

Regular exercise is just one of the 10 ways Arthritis Australia outlines to help you live with arthritis. If you want to learn more about the other nine, you can read their booklet 10 steps for living well with arthritis.

Remember to consult with your doctor before trying any new exercise programs.

Frequently asked questions

How can I avoid developing osteoarthritis in the first place?

Although several risk factors for osteoarthritis are out of your control - such as age, gender, and heredity - there are lifestyle changes you can make to help you improve your joint health and prevent osteoarthritis:

  • Manage occupational risks such as kneeling, lifting and twisting.
  • Regular, low-impact exercise.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Rest - make sure you get enough sleep each night, and if your joints are swollen or achy, give them a break.
  • Control your blood sugar - diabetes may be a significant risk factor for developing osteoarthritis.

What exercises should I avoid if I have osteoarthritis?

  • Avoid high-impact activities that can stress your joints to minimize further joint inflammation and pain, such as running, jumping, deep squats that work your leg muscles and glutes, bending, climbing stairs, hiking and prolonged standing.
  • If osteoarthritis in the neck and shoulders is a problem for you, avoid activities with repetitive overhead arm movements, such as tennis, painting walls and ceilings, and motions such as planks, dips and pushups.

Is osteoarthritis the same as osteoporosis?

They sound similar, but they are not the same. You can actually have both at the same time, or just one of the two.

  • Osteoarthritis, as discussed earlier in this article, is best known as the wear and tear arthritis that often causes joint pain and mobility problems in older adults from the deterioration of the joints.
  • Osteoporosis is s a bone disease that develops when bone mineral density and bone mass decreases, or when the structure and strength of bone changes. This can lead to a decrease in bone strength that can increase the risk of fractures.

Keep healthy and active with IRT

At IRT, we’ve been helping older Australians live their best lives for more than 50 years. We offer retirement living, residential aged care and home care services in various locations across NSW, ACT and Qld. We believe it's our values as a community-owned provider that help us to be the best at what we do.

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