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Navigating the Gym with Arthritis

08 May 2017

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Navigating the gym can be a challenge for anyone, but for someone with arthritis, finding the right workout regimen can be particularly difficult. However, daily exercise can actually help alleviate pain for individuals with arthritis.

“Exercise has multiple benefits for arthritis pain, specifically strengthening and stretching muscles that surround arthritic joints to provide additional support,” Hayley Balenseifen, physical therapist at INTEGRIS Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation says. “Low-impact exercise like walking, stretching, riding a bicycle or water exercise help build and maintain bone density, which is crucial for arthritic joints.”

In addition to improving strength, flexibility and bone density, exercise can help with weight loss.

“Being overweight can place a higher demand on some joints including the hips, knees, feet and back,” INTEGRIS Rheumatologist, Amy Dedeke, M.D. says. “Someone who already has arthritis may find that weight adds to the pain they’re already experiencing on a regular basis.  Reducing weight lessens the impact on those weight bearing joints, and therefore may lessen some arthritic symptoms.”

Getting Started

If you are trying to stay fit with arthritis, follow the steps below to ease into a workout regimen, avoid injury and achieve a healthier lifestyle.

1. Start simple

If you are new to the gym, it’s important to start slow, especially if you have arthritis. “When starting out with a new regimen, everyone should start slow and at a pace that is right for them,” Dr. Dedeke says. “Too much activity too soon may pose a risk of injury and increased pain in those joints affected by arthritis.”

The key is to move your body each day, without pushing yourself to do exercises that cause pain or discomfort. “Begin walking short distances (ex: to and from the mailbox or around the block if able) and perform a few range-of-motion exercises,” Balenseifen recommends. “If you have access to a pool, start with water-walking in the shallow end for five to 10 minutes.”

2. Work with a Physical Therapist

If you have little or no experience with exercise, it’s important to work with a physical therapist before starting an exercise regimen. “For someone who has never exercised, I recommend seeing a physical therapist to establish a safe routine,” Balenseifen says. “Physical therapists are trained to tailor an exercise program to fit the patient’s needs as well as accommodate for any other issues like areas of pain, history of surgery or cardiovascular conditions.”

3. Establish a Fitness Routine

If physical therapy helps to increase your mobility, you may feel ready to take on a more challenging fitness routine. Hiring a personal trainer can be a helpful way to safely transition from physical therapy to regular independent exercise.

“Once you establish a baseline of strength and flexibility and are proficient in your home exercises, a personal trainer will help further build strength and manage your exercise regimen long term,” Balenseifen says.

Best Exercises for Arthritis

Strength, flexibility and cardiovascular health can help to improve quality of life and alleviate pain. For people with arthritis, it’s important to incorporate a balance of low-impact cardio, gentle strength training and stretching into your weekly workout regimen.

Low-impact cardio

When it comes to cardio, low-impact is the most important thing to look for. Most gyms offer stationary bikes and elliptical machines, which offer low-impact alternatives to common cardiovascular exercises like running or walking.

Water exercise also offers a low-impact cardio option. “Water aerobics and swimming are a great option for individuals with arthritis,” Dr. Dedeke says. “These exercises provide significant strengthening, range of motion and resistance, without the impact of traditional exercise like walking, jogging or running.”

Strength training

When using dumbbells and resistance bands for strength training, it’s important to start with light weights, so as not to strain your muscles or joints. Focus on slow controlled movements. If you have no experience with strength training, consult a personal trainer at your gym for help with proper form and instructions on how to use the equipment. Always talk to your doctor before trying a new kind of exercise to make sure it will not have negative repercussions on your arthritis or other health issues.


Never overlook the power of stretching. “Stretching and warming up prior to any activity is always recommended,” Dr. Dedeke says.

Before each workout, use dynamic stretching to warm up your joints and activate the muscles that you will use in your workout. Dynamic stretches can include squats, lunges, arm circles, and high kicks, using a shallow range of motion, rather than a full range of motion. You should also stretch at the end of your workout, while your muscles are still warm. This will increase your overall flexibility over time.

Yoga, Pilates and tai chi are also great options to increase flexibility. These types of exercise utilize fluid, gentle movements to engage and stretch muscles, without putting impact or stress on the joints.

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Common questions and concerns

“Gentle exercise for people with arthritis does not pose serious risks,” Balenseifen says. If you have questions or concerns regarding your personal fitness routine, consult your doctor before proceeding. We’ve answered a few of the most common questions regarding exercising with arthritis below.

How often should I exercise?

“People with arthritis benefit from daily exercise,” Balenseifen says. “Even simple movements such as stretching or range-of-motion exercises count for daily movement. Cardiovascular exercise, which helps build lung capacity and endurance, is recommended for 150 minutes per week, which can certainly be broken down into short bouts of exercise to accommodate the patient’s level of fitness.”

How do I stay hydrated?

When exercising regularly, staying hydrated is important for everyone. For individuals with arthritis, staying hydrated is even more important, because water helps to fight inflammation in the body, keep joints lubricated and flush out toxins. Drinking plenty of water can help to alleviate arthritis pain caused by inflammation in the body. The rule of thumb for generally healthy people is to drink four to six cups of water per day. However, if you are exercising heavily or live in a hot climate, this amount may vary. Certain health conditions and medications may also affect your hydration, so consult your physician about how you can stay hydrated.

How do I tell the difference between muscle soreness and pain?

“If you experience soreness in those muscle groups you feel you’re working, and it’s a mild soreness following the activity, this should improve and resolve when you stop exercising,” Dr. Dedeke says.  “If you feel a sharp pain in a joint or muscle, this is a sign to stop the activity. Any pain, however, should be monitored and if not improving, could indicate a sign of injury, and discussion with your physician would be recommended.  Exercise and activity should be a positive element, adding to your health and overall wellbeing.”

If you are tired of your arthritis holding you back and ready to take on a healthier lifestyle, remember to start slow and communicate with your health care team.

“Always discuss your plans for starting a new exercise regimen with your physician,” Dr. Dedeke recommends. “There may be specific recommendations he/she has for each individual based on the type of arthritis they have, or perhaps what may be best for that individual.  If you have other health conditions, it’s important to take those into account; this includes lung or heart disease, or even skin conditions; some exercise regimens may not be ideal for everyone, and a discussion with your physician is always recommended.”