• By Laurel Kelly

Consumer Health: Arthritis and exercise

May 23, 2022
a middle aged white woman in a swimming pool wearing eye goggles and smiling

May is Arthritis Awareness Month, which makes this a good time to learn more about a condition that affects over 58 million people in the U.S., or approximately 1 in 4 adults.

Arthritis is the swelling and tenderness of one or more of your joints. The main symptoms of arthritis are joint pain and stiffness, which typically worsen with age.

The two most common types of arthritis — osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis — damage joints in different ways:

  • Osteoarthritis occurs when the protective cartilage that cushions the ends of your bones wears down over time. Although osteoarthritis can damage any joint, the disorder most commonly affects joints in your hands, knees, hips and spine.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect more than just your joints. In some people, the condition can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.

Severe arthritis, particularly if it affects your hands or arms, can make it difficult for you to perform daily tasks. Arthritis of weight-bearing joints can keep you from walking comfortably or sitting up straight. In some cases, joints may become twisted and deformed. Arthritis pain can interfere with your daily activities and enjoyment of life.

Exercise is crucial for people with arthritis. It increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain, and helps combat fatigue. But with stiff and painful joints, exercise might not seem doable. You might think exercise will aggravate your joint pain and stiffness, but lack of exercise can make your joints even more painful and stiff.

What types of exercises are best for you depends on your type of arthritis and which joints are involved. Your health care team can work with you to find the exercise plan that gives you the most benefit with the least aggravation of your joint pain.

Recommended exercises for people with arthritis include:

  • Range-of-motion exercises, such as raising your arms over your head or rolling your shoulders forward and backward.
  • Strengthening exercises, such as weight training.
  • Aerobic or endurance exercises, such as walking, bicycling, swimming and using an elliptical machine.
  • Body awareness excises, such as gentle forms of yoga or tai chi.
  • Daily activities, such as yardwork and walking the dog.

Connect with others talking about arthritis and living well in the Bones, Joints & Muscles support group on Mayo Clinic Connect, an online patient community moderated by Mayo Clinic.