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Exercises that make osteoarthritis worse

Osteoarthritis (OA) also called degenerative joint disease, is a condition that develops from wear and tear of body’s joints over time. OA can cause joint pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, crepitus (popping or crackling sounds in the joint), swelling, and muscle weakness.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint, although it is most common in the back and spine, hips, knees, neck, shoulders, fingers, and hands.

If left untreated, osteoarthritis typically worsens over time and can lead to permanent joint damage and disability. Exercise plays a crucial role in both the prevention and treatment of osteoarthritis, although some exercises are better than others.

This article will discuss the importance of exercise for managing osteoarthritis as well as the types of exercises that should be avoided.

Benefits of Exercise for Osteoarthritis

OA causes increased pressure and resulting pain and inflammation within affected joints. Exercise plays a key role in preventing joint damage and decreasing irritation. Exercise strengthens surrounding muscles that help to support and stabilize joints and decrease pressure, especially within large weight-bearing joints like the hips and knees.

Exercise can also improve blood flow and synovial fluid quality within joints, helping to improve range of motion and relieve joint stiffness. Synovial fluid fills the space between joints, providing nutrients to the cartilage and lubricating joints to allow bones to move smoothly without friction to the cartilage.

Healthy synovial fluid normally contains high levels of hyaluronic acid that helps provide a lubricating effect. In osteoarthritis, the amount of hyaluronic acid is reduced; therefore, it cannot adequately lubricate joints and prevent cartilage damage from friction. This can lead to even more pain and disability with osteoarthritis.

Exercise has the potential to increase the weight of hyaluronic acid and the viscosity of the synovial fluid within arthritic joints, which can help improve joint lubrication and relieve pain.

Exercise as a whole also has specific benefits, which can help decrease widespread inflammation throughout the body. The benefits include reducing levels of elevated:

Exercises That Make Osteoarthritis Worse

With osteoarthritis, it is best to avoid activities that can stress your joints to minimize further joint inflammation and pain. High-impact activities that can worsen symptoms of osteoarthritis in your hips or knees include:

  • Running

  • Jumping

  • Deep squatting and bending

  • Stair climbing

  • Hiking

  • Prolonged standing

Sports and activities that require repetitive and prolonged overhead arm use like playing tennis, overhead weightlifting, and painting walls and ceilings, as well as motions like planks, push-ups, and dips that require weight-bearing through the upper extremities, may aggravate symptoms of osteoarthritis in the neck and shoulders.

our joints will endure significant pressure, friction, and irritation with repetitive or high-impact activities if the muscles lack adequate strength to support them. A physical therapist can work with you to help build up strength in the muscle groups needed to support your joints.

Exercises That Help Osteoarthritis

There are many exercises that can help osteoarthritis, including strength training, walking, water exercise, stretching, and more.

Strength Training Exercises

Strength training is important for maintaining proper muscle balance and functional strength needed to support your joints. With osteoarthritis, strengthening the muscles can help offload pressure on the affected joints by allowing the muscles to absorb more shock and force, reducing joint irritation and pain.

Common muscle groups that often need to be strengthened to support arthritic joints include the:

When participating in strength training, always start with lightweight or resistance and gradually increase the weight over time as you build up strength.

Aerobic Exercises

Aerobic or cardiovascular exercise is important for decreasing inflammation throughout the body. It also helps maintain proper circulation to supply oxygen and nutrients to muscles and joints, which can lessen inflammatory symptoms of arthritis.

Regular cardiovascular activity can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which can significantly decrease pressure at painful weight-bearing joints of the hips and knees. Overweight individuals who lose 5% of their body weight can see significant changes in osteoarthritis symptoms and improvements in physical wellbeing.

Stretches for Flexibility

Stretching can help improve your flexibility and joint mobility by decreasing joint pain and stiffness. Aim to hold stretches for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat at least three times.


Walking is one of the best low-impact, aerobic exercises that can improve your blood flow, help you lose weight, and decrease inflammation throughout your body. Walking up or down hills can also improve the strength of your leg muscles but should be done with caution as inclines and declines can place increased pressure on the joints.

Water Exercises

Aquatic exercises performed in a pool are particularly beneficial for improving joint mobility and muscular strength. Water exerts buoyancy that reduces weight bearing through your joints,5 thereby decreasing pressure and improving the ability of your joint to move with less pain.

Adapted from the article by Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT in


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