Why Exercise for Knee Arthritis is Key

By: Brian A. McCarty, MD

Woman athlete using resistance band exercise to improve knee arthritis

Arthritic knees hurt. Whether you have osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis that affects your knees, you likely experience pain when climbing stairs and standing up from a seated position. You know the stiffness, swelling, buckling, and cracking sounds in your knees all too well. It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do for your arthritic knees is to exercise. In fact, proper exercise can make you feel better overall and help to alleviate your arthritis pain. 

When you have arthritis, you need to keep moving. Think of it the same way athletes do; you need to continually condition your knees. If you don’t train and condition your knees, you won’t get the most out of them. This is true for athletes and couch potatoes alike. You need to maintain strength to protect your joints from further damage. You also need to carefully and regularly stretch to preserve your flexibility. A sedentary lifestyle will worsen your arthritis and make it more difficult for your knees to function. But unlike an athlete, your end game isn’t to push physical boundaries. Your goal is to lessen the risk of further joint damage.

How to Safely Exercise with Arthritis

When it comes to knee health, it’s all about three key muscle groups: quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. Your goal should be to maintain or improve the full range of motion for your knee joints. Muscle groups like your quads and glutes provide stability and do the hard work required for movements like walking and lunging. And the primary job of your hamstring muscles is to protect the ligaments inside your knees. Keeping these muscle groups strong and healthy helps your body absorb shock and therefore, protect your knee joints.

When planning for exercise to improve your knee arthritis, design a routine that works your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Your goal should be strength and flexibility. Simply by conditioning these main muscle groups, you are creating a safer environment for your knee to function.

When coping with arthritic knees, you should always avoid high-impact activities. Swimming, rowing, and cycling are examples of low-impact aerobic activity that will get your heart rate up while going easy on your knee joints. Additionally, the National Institutes of Health reports, “It seems that yoga can be used as a conservative treatment besides usual treatments and medications to improve the condition of people with osteoarthritis.”

Resistance bands can be effective for building strength without putting too much pressure on the joint as well. Knee extensions and standing leg raises, when done in moderation, can be highly effective in helping arthritis ailments.

No matter which types of exercises you prefer, take it slowly. Always warm up first and listen to your body. You should not feel pain while exercising — not in your knees or elsewhere. Consider wearing a knee brace. A knee brace can help relieve pain by helping to bear the load on your knee as external structural support.

Arthritis and Wellness

Maintaining a healthy weight can be challenging. Especially during a pandemic and the holiday season. However, weight management is crucial, especially if you suffer from problematic knee joints. According to the Arthritis Foundation, “Losing one pound will take four pounds of pressure off your knees.”

The right diet can also help knee arthritis. A study by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that adherence to the Mediterranean diet can relieve some knee arthritis symptoms. And the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases has published the results of two studies, both demonstrating that the dietary intake of fiber reduces body weight and inflammation, therefore preventing or mitigating the effects of osteoarthritis of the knee.

Drinking water is exceptionally effective for combating knee arthritis. The Arthritis Association advises, “If there’s a magical elixir to drink, it’s water. Hydration is vital for flushing toxins out of your body, which can help fight inflammation.” Try to drink at least eight glasses of water a day to help ease symptoms of arthritis and maintain your overall wellness.

Working Out to Help Knee Arthritis

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends the following knee conditioning routine for arthritis of the knee:

  • Heel cord stretches
  • Standing quadriceps stretch
  • Supine hamstring stretch
  • Half squats
  • Hamstring curls
  • Calf raises
  • Leg extensions
  • Straight-leg raises
  • Straight-leg raises, prone position
  • Hip abduction
  • Leg presses

If you have any questions or desire training and exercise guidance, please contact one of our knee specialists or the MOSH Knee Therapy and Rehabilitation Team.