People living with knee osteoarthritis often find it painful to move. Eroding cartilage in the knee can make it painful to walk or navigate the stairs. However exercise is one the best non-drug treatments to reduce pain and improve mobility, making it important for osteoarthritis patients to find a way to move despite the pain.
Exercise reduces osteoarthritis pain in several ways. It helps people control their weight, which lessens stress on the joint. Working out is also a wonderful stress reliever, and reducing stress helps to reduce overall inflammation.
Physical activity also helps to lubricate the joint and strengthen surrounding muscles, reducing the likelihood of immobility. Strengthening the muscles that surround the knee offer the joint more support and lessen the risk of injury.
If you have knee osteoarthritis, there are specific types of exercises that are especially good for reducing pain. Keep in mind that talking with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen is critical. Respect your body’s limits and don’t push too hard. You’ll likely feel discomfort, but avoid any activity that results in sharp pain, especially in the joint.
Range-of-motion exercises are beneficial for people with knee osteoarthritis.
One type of exercise beneficial for osteoarthritis patients involves focusing on the entire range of motion. While the knee is not one of the most flexible joints—it moves only one way—exercises that require bending and straightening the leg at the knee are helpful.
Walking or hiking are good examples of exercises that require the knee to move through its entire range of motion. The leg fully straightens when taking a step forward, and then bends before taking the next step. This is opposed to an exercise like biking, which typically doesn’t require the knee to alternatively bend and straighten. That’s not say that biking isn’t a good exercise, only that walking offers specific benefits.
Studies show walking may be one of the most beneficial exercises to help people with knee osteoarthritis reduce the risk of future immobility.
Data published in the journal Arthritis Care and Research found people who walked at least 6,000 steps per day saw a reduced risk of difficulty with basic motions, like climbing the stairs or rising from a chair.
Researchers studied 1,788 people and found those who walked the most were up to 18% less likely to have trouble with mobility two years later. The magic number of steps they discovered for optimal benefit was 6,000. Study author Dr. Daniel White says:
“Walking is an inexpensive activity and despite the common popular goal of walking 10,000 steps per day, our study finds only 6,000 steps are necessary to realize benefits. We encourage those with or at risk of knee OA to walk at least 3,000 or more steps each day, and ultimately progress to 6,000 steps daily to minimize the risk of developing difficulty with mobility.”
Walking is a good, safe exercise for people with knee osteoarthritis. You can go at your own pace, and it’s easy to find a friend, family member, or even dog to join you so you don’t have to go alone. Many people find exercising with a partner helps them to stay motivated and continue the new habit.
Aerobic exercise is beneficial for people with knee osteoarthritis.
Aerobic exercise elevates the heart rate and leads to a sweat. This intense form of working out not only helps people control their weight, which is important for managing osteoarthritis pain, but has also been found in itself to reduce discomfort.
Research from The Norwegian University of Science and Technology found high-intensity interval training helps patients reduce inflammation, as well as more moderate exercise. Study participants were all women from the ages of 20 to 49. They exercised for just 35 minutes — a ten-minute warm-up followed by four-minute intervals of 85 to 95% of their maximum pulse.
Researchers said the study was too small to influence the current exercise recommendations for arthritis patients, but said it showed promise. The Arthritis Foundation recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week or 75 minutes if the activity is more vigorous.
The type of exercise that works best for you will depend on the level of osteoarthritis present in your knee. If you’re at the beginning stages, engaging in high-intensity activity is probably fine, if it doesn’t hurt and your doctor says it’s okay. Later on in the condition’s progression, however, low-impact exercise may be more beneficial, and in fact, the only exercise that’s possible.
Low-impact exercises include walking, the elliptical machine at the gym, bicycling, rowing, swimming, and the Stairmaster. High-impact activities include running, which research shows is protective against knee osteoarthritis, and many group exercise classes or team sports.
Regardless of how much exercise you can do, any movement is better than no movement. Do what you can and feel good about making a difference in your health.
Build strength to reduce pain from knee osteoarthritis.
Strength-building movements like partial squats and resistance exercises can help reduce knee pain as well, with a few caveats. First, avoid allowing the knees to extend over the feet, which puts too much pressure on the joint and increases the risk for injury, especially for those already experiencing pain.
Beneficial exercises include partial squats, which involve standing in front of a chair and lowering down until you’re hovering a few inches off the seat, recommends Prevention magazine. Engage the core and abdominal muscles while making sure the knees stay behind the toes.
Another easy, gentle way to build muscle strength is to do leg lifts. For the gentlest version, sit on the chair and lift one leg until it’s parallel to the floor. Hold the leg there for about five seconds before resting. Repeat three times and then switch to the other leg. Add ankle weights to increase the difficulty. This exercise strengthens the muscles surrounding the knee to offer support and reduce the load they bear.
What exercises do you find most helpful for reducing pain from knee osteoarthritis?
Image by Kenny Holston via Flickr