When I'm in Pain, Should I Exercise or Rest?

Sometimes pain is your body’s way of saying “take it easy!” But if you’re dealing with chronic joint pain because of arthritis, you’ll be worse off if you heed this message too often.

So how do you know when to take a break and when to keep moving?

Stay active, when you can

On the whole, the answer is "keep moving." Your joints were made to move. They need movement to nourish the joint and keep the muscles around the joint strong and limber. Doctors encourage their patients with arthritis to be as active as they can—as long as it isn't exacerbating joint pain.

The benefits of staying active are numerous. Exercise can:

See Exercising with Arthritis

  • Control joint pain and swelling
  • Help you rehabilitate after a procedure or a flare-up
  • Slow the deterioration of arthritic joints
  • Improve mood and sleep
  • Decrease anxiety and fight depression
  • Help manage other chronic conditions that are common for people with arthritis, such as diabetes and heart disease

People with arthritis should aim for 30 minutes of low-impact aerobic activity on most days, strength training activity twice a week, and balance exercises 3 times a week, if your arthritis puts you at higher risk of falling.

See Strength Training Can Crush Arthritis Pain


Sometimes rest is appropriate

Despite the importance of staying active, there are times when it's best to rest. This is the case if the activity you're doing is causing pain—not the "good" pain of muscles that have had a healthy workout, but "bad" pain that is specifically and acutely hurting an arthritic joint.

If you are experiencing an arthritis flare-up, it can be helpful to take a break for a day or two while you focus on reducing pain and inflammation. In the meantime, focus on rest, ice or heat therapy, and anti-inflammatory pain medications. But after you’re feeling better, you should get up and get moving again.

See Applying Heat vs. Cold to an Arthritic Joint

See Pain Medications for Arthritis Pain Relief

Also don’t forget that you can modify your activities to accommodate the painful joint. For example, if your hip is hurting, take a break from walking and try water aerobics for a few weeks instead.

See Water Therapy for Osteoarthritis

You can also ease joint pain by using a warm compress on the joint for 10 minutes before you start exercising, and then applying ice for 10 minutes after. The goal is to "work around" your arthritis pain in order to remain active without making your symptoms worse.

See When and Why to Apply Heat to an Arthritic Joint

If you're not sure what exercise options are best for you, talk to your doctor. A physical therapist can also help you find stretches and exercises that you can do at home to stay active and strengthen your joints without injuring them.

Shoulder and knee exercises to build strength

Check out our guides to simple stretches you can do to strengthen your shoulders and your knees. As always, stop any exercise that is causing or increasing joint pain.

See Shoulder Strengthening Exercises

See Knee Strengthening Exercises

Learn more:

Gentle Stretching Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Walking: The Best Way to Start Getting Active with Arthritis

Carrie DeVries worked as the content marketing manager at Veritas Health. She combined a background of writing and editing, marketing, and patient education to best serve the consumers, patients, and physicians who rely on Veritas Health for information.