Tips to Live By

Tips for Exercising With Joint Pain

June 14, 2023 - Kim Rivera Huston-Weber

You might believe that when it comes to easing joint pain — whether in your hip, knee, ankle or shoulder — rest and taking it easy works best. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Exercise can be one of the best things you can do to help your chronic joint pain, no matter its cause.

"If you're treating your joint pain with rest all the time, you're going to become weaker, and that's only going to make your joint pain worse," says Dr. Zachary Shirley, an orthopedic surgeon with Houston Methodist. "It can start that vicious cycle of resting and more pain and weakness."

So if you're reading this and have a particular ache or pain caused by arthritis, an old injury or just the aging process — we have tips to help you get started.

Why exercise for joint pain relief?

Regular exercise can help keep the muscles around the joints strong, lower the risk of bone loss and help keep joint swelling at bay. Staying consistent with exercise can help lubricate the joint cartilage, which can help reduce stiffness and pain. Regular exercise helps keep you flexible and strong, which can delay or avoid surgery on the affected joint.

"Stay active and keep your strength up because if you get weaker, your joint pain increases," Dr. Shirley says.

Plus, whether it's better sleep, increased energy, better mood and lowered anxiety, there are a whole host of other benefits to exercise. It can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and help prevent diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and colon cancer. It can keep your mind sharp and keep you independent for longer as you age. Simply put, there are more benefits to regular exercise than inactivity.

The best exercise for joint pain

According to Dr. Shirley, low-impact exercise is the best long-term option for chronic joint pain. The best low-impact exercise for you will come down to what you like to do. If you enjoy a particular type of movement, you're more likely to stay consistent and stay strong to prevent stiffness and pain.

"Walking is great, but the recumbent stationary bicycle is my favorite thing for people with knee pain from arthritis," Dr. Shirley says. "Water aerobics, or even walking in the water, also is a great low-impact exercise."

Some other examples of low-impact exercise include:

  • Cycling
  • Elliptical machine
  • Golf
  • Hiking (choose flat, nearly-level trails)
  • Pilates
  • Rowing
  • Stretching
  • Swimming
  • Tai chi
  • Walking
  • Yoga


(Related: 5 Muscles To Stretch To Improve Your Knee Health)

Tips for exercising with joint pain

Start slow

"It's all about listening to your body, seeing what you can tolerate, and knowing what your starting point is based on how active you've been in the past and then gradually working your way up," Dr. Shirley said.

Going slow can ensure you're not overextending yourself, causing injury or putting undue stress on yourself physically and mentally. Doing too much too soon can make exercise seem unattainable, whereas easing in can ensure you can incorporate it into your life long-term.

"When someone exercises once and says their knee is killing them, and they don't go back to it, that's when I really emphasize that you're basically reteaching your body how to undergo a stress like that," Dr. Shirley says. "You have to gradually introduce the stress of exercise without overdoing it."

In general, Dr. Shirley says that exercising with joint pain comes down to starting with an activity like a recumbent bike for 5 to 10 minutes for someone less active to 15 to 20 minutes for a more active person, depending on current fitness level. From there, add a minute each day until you work your way up to 30 minutes. Once your body can withstand 30 minutes of activity, you can try a new exercise goal, like adding resistance to increase your heart rate.

Make sure you talk with your doctor before beginning any new training regimen if you experience joint pain. They can tailor a plan for you based on the affected joint, your current health status and the type of movement you enjoy.

Avoid high-impact exercise

Low-impact exercise is where you'll see the most benefit for joint pain. Low-impact exercise is easy on the joints because of slower, gentler, fluid motion. High-impact exercise is tougher on the joints. It can include running (even jogging), tennis, skiing, jump squats, crossfit/boot camps and more.

"Things you want to avoid are high impact, like Zumba or jumping exercises, things like that," Dr. Shirley says. "Deep flexion of the knee with like squats or deep flexion of the hip or are going to aggravate pain."

Know when to seek care

Chronic joint pain might mean you have a baseline discomfort that you live with. Exercise can help alleviate it, but you don't want to overdo it. If you're having an active joint pain flare where your joint is swollen or hot, taking a rest day or two to recover makes sense. Knowing when to seek care for pain comes down to paying attention to your body's cues.

"Chronic pain from arthritis is dull, aching, throbbing type pain," Dr. Shirley says. "If you're having sharp pain, pain that's preventing you from bearing weight, or your chronic baseline pain increases significantly, those are times when you want to come at least get evaluated."

Anything is better than nothing

It can be a tough mental hurdle to lace up your shoes and get moving, knowing you may feel some discomfort if you live with joint pain. Do what you can — and you'll benefit.

"Exercise, no matter what kind that you can tolerate, is going to be way better for you than being afraid to because of minor aches and pains that come from knee or hip or other joint problems," Dr. Shirley says. "Even if you can't do daily exercise three or four times a week, you need to be doing something because maintaining your strength is actually going to prevent problems from getting worse."

Whether you're living with joint pain now or not, any exercise is better than no exercise.

"No matter where you're starting now, if you're in your 40s, 50s, you want to be doing something good to keep your strength up and keep your weight down, stay healthy," Dr. Shirley says. "Otherwise, you're going to lend yourself to needing people like me more later in life."

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Categories: Tips to Live By