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How You Can Start to Exercise with Osteoarthritis

The Benefit from Exercise Begins with Baby Steps


Updated January 27, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

You've heard it before. Exercise and regular physical activity are beneficial for osteoarthritis. Although many people with osteoarthritis believe that statement intellectually, too many excuse themselves.

When done properly, exercise does help decrease osteoarthritis pain. Exercise also helps improve your muscle strength, bone strength, balance, posture, flexibility, mobility and energy level - all of which are essential for overall good health. Exercise also promotes better joint function and helps you maintain your ideal weight.

When we asked "what keeps you from exercising?", the consensus seemed to indicate unawareness, if not disbelief, that exercise would help rather than hurt already painful joints. Several responders were unsure whether the form of exercise they chose would be safe for osteoarthritis.

I pondered why osteoarthritis patients are reluctant to accept that exercise is beneficial for osteoarthritis. It occurred to me that in over three decades of consulting with various doctors for my arthritis, never once was I asked if I was exercising on a regular basis. Never once.

I know many patients who follow their doctor's recommendations explicitly. They are compliant patients, which is good, but they disregard ideas for managing osteoarthritis that may not initiate with their doctor. These patients are not self-motivated and are not apt to open a discussion about exercise with their doctor.

It may be, then, that some patients resist regular exercise because they have misconceptions, they lack guidance and they simply don't know how to start. The following tips will help you start to exercise:

Set realistic goals. Some people with osteoarthritis resist exercise because they believe they cannot do enough to matter. Start with what you can do. Simple leg movements, stretches, walking reasonable distances or bicycling will get you into a groove that you can build on. If you need a structured setting, look into going to a gym, but start slow and don't feel overwhelmed early on. If you start to feel overwhelmed, pare back your exercise routine.

Set a schedule that's doable. Another reason given for resisting regular exercise is that people are too busy and can't make the necessary commitment. Between work and family, some feel there is no time for a regular exercise regimen. But you need to find time and need to view exercise just as necessary as eating or sleeping. Make it fit into your life and always keep in mind that exercise is essential, not optional.

Find the motivation. Your motivation to exercise should come from realizing that your efforts will be rewarded. Make a list of the benefits of exercise and display it wherever you would exercise in your home. Make a second list that emphasizes what happens to you if you don't exercise. This will serve as a visual reminder of the pros and cons of exercise. Search, then, for inspirational quotes or a role model.

Make it fun and reward yourself. The commitment to exercise regularly is serious. You will be more likely to stick to it if you build in a reward for yourself. Allow yourself some sort of treat if you achieve your weekly goals or reward youself with a little time off - but just a little, not enough to get off track.

Seek the guidance you need. Still don't feel like you know how to start exercising? Talk to your doctor. You should always feel comfortable asking for your doctor's guidance. Your doctor may recommend a consultation with a physical therapist or a professional who could assess your physical strengths and limitations. With a physical evaluation or assessment, you can set specific goals for areas of weakness.

The bottom line - you need realistic goals, a schedule you can manage, motivation to get going, a way to reward your efforts and, in some cases, professional guidance. That's how you start to exercise.

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