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Low-Impact Exercise Benefits Osteoarthritis Patients

Protect Your Joints While Exercising


Updated December 24, 2012

People with osteoarthritis are advised to exercise and participate in physical activity on a regular basis. Staying active helps to maintain muscle strength, mobility, and joint health. Despite the benefits, many people with osteoarthritis resist regular exercise. Many people believe that joint pain prevents them from exercising. But, most of the people who think they can't exercise are focused on high-impact activities that would be difficult with their physical limitations. In reality, low-impact exercise, as opposed to high-impact exercise or physical activity, is recommended for people with osteoarthritis.

What Is Low-Impact Exercise/Physical Activity?

Low-impact exercise and low-impact physical activity is gentle on the body, especially your joints. Essentially, low-impact exercise, as its name suggests, refers to exercise and physical activities that don't require you to put excessive weight or strain on your joints. Examples of low-impact exercise include: walking, bicycling, stretching, yoga, and swimming. An eliptical trainer or step machine can also be used to provide low-impact activity, providing your physical limitations do not prevent its use. Water therapy is another excellent way to achieve low-impact exercise since the buoyancy of water takes the burden off of your joints and permits a vigorous workout. Low-impact activities allow movement without putting direct force on your body.

By contrast, high-impact exercise and activity stress and strain your muscles and joints. Examples include, tennis, running, jogging, basketball, as well as many other sports that force the body to work against gravity. While high-impact activities are credited with helping to build bone mineral density, the goal for people with osteoarthritis is to build strength and maintain joint mobility while not increasing pain or damaging joints further. That's why low-impact exercise is preferred for people with osteoarthritis.

What Is Low-Impact "Aerobic" Exercise?

You may often see the term low-impact aerobic exercise when you see references to low-impact exercise. The term "aerobic" refers to exercise that is vigorous enough to increase your heart rate to a target zone in order to burn calories, improve cardiovascular strength, and overall fitness. People with osteoarthritis must always consider their physical limitations when choosing appropriate exercise. Choosing an activity that will help you burn calories is not ultimately beneficial if it increases joint pain. Talk to your doctor about what is appropriate low-impact exercise for you.

Tips to Help You Benefit From Low-Impact Exercise

If you have lacked an exercise routine for some time and, literally, don't know where to begin, don't fret. It's quite simply a matter of finding what suits you. Follow these tips to help you get the most out of low-impact exercise.

  • Choose a low-impact activity that you enjoy. Build your routine around what you already like to do. Do you enjoy walking the dog? Do you enjoy a dip in the pool? Would you rather sit in one place and watch television while you exercise? If you answered yes to the last choice, a stationary bike may be what you need.
  • Start slow and pick up the pace gradually. If you try to do too much too soon, you will become discouraged.
  • Track your progress. Keep a log or diary of how much you have accomplished. There are also gadgets you can purchase to help you track progress. For example, a pedometer tracks your walking progress.
  • Don't like a gym setting or public environment? Consider buying home gym equipment if that will better suit your needs.
  • Do you prefer a group setting to exercising alone? Consider taking a class for yoga, Pilates, tai chi, Zumba, or water exercise.


Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, February 2009.

Low-Impact Aerobic Exercise. Ullrich PF, M.D. Spine-health.com. Accessed 12/22/12.

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