Knee Exercises for Arthritis

Arthritis of any type (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and approximately 100 more) can cause severe knee pain and stiffness. People living with these symptoms may feel like exercise is the last thing they want to do or even should do. However, most people with an arthritic knee can benefit from a comprehensive program of knee exercises that includes:

  • Knee stretches to encourage flexibility in the knee joint and surrounding muscle;
  • Knee strengthening exercises designed to build muscle around the knee, and
  • Low impact aerobic workouts, which build muscle and improve overall cardiac health.

This article provides specific sets of exercises for knee stretches, strengthening, and low impact aerobic activities for those with arthritic knees.

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Benefits of Knee Exercises

Together, stretches, strengthening exercises and low-impact aerobic workouts can provide multiple benefits, including:

    Reduces pain. Exercise strengthens muscles and stronger muscles provide better support to joints. By strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee, including the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, the knee becomes more stable and bones are more protected from impact, which in turn reduces pain. Exercise also releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers.

    Increases range of motion and function. Pain can discourage a person from being active, thus compounding the problem of joint pain with stiffness, which leads to increased pain. Regular exercise will help keep the knee joint and surrounding muscles remain limber, thereby increasing knee function.

    Supports healthy cartilage. Joint cartilage needs motion and a healthy amount of stress to stay healthy. Synovial fluid is stored in cartilage like water in a sponge. When the joint is used, the synovial fluid excretes from the cartilage and delivers nutrients and lubrication to the joint. Synovial fluid is also thought to encourage a healing environment for the joint, thereby reducing inflammation and supporting healthy joint function.

    Helps with weight loss. Exercise combined with a nutritious, low fat diet can help shed pounds, thereby putting less pressure on the knee joint. The effect of weight loss has an amplified benefit: losing 10 pounds means 30 fewer pounds of pressure exerted on the knee with each step.

    Helps maintain function. Chronic knee pain can prevent a person from doing day-to-day tasks or participating in sports and recreational activities. It’s frustrating and sometimes depressing. Exercise - along with perhaps physical modifications and adjusted expectations - can help arthritis sufferers return to the activities they love, and engage in everyday activities.

Preparing for Knee Exercises

An individual should always work with a health care provider to design an exercise plan that meets his or her specific needs and physical challenges. For example:

    Warm up: Any exercise routine should typically be preceded by a 10 minute warm-up activity, which increases blood flow and literally warms up the body, making muscles more flexible. A good warm-up is a walk or other slow-paced aerobic activity. For those with more severe arthritis, gentle range-of-motion activities and a warm compress might also be sufficient.

    Post workout: After a workout, some people may need to ice the knees (a bag of frozen peas will do) and/or take an over-the counter NSAID medication (e.g. Advil, Aleve) to reduce swelling and relieve discomfort.

If any pain is felt during knee exercises, stop and seek advice from a healthcare professional or an appropriately qualified athletic trainer before continuing.

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Article written by: Ana Bracilovic, MD
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