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Living Your Best Life with Osteoarthritis

Activity and exercise for OA

​​​How much the OA affects a joint doesn’t always match your pain level or how much trouble you have moving (mobility). Some people are surprised to learn they have OA because they feel good and move well. Others are surprised the changes to their joints aren’t that bad even though they’re having a lot of pain and trouble moving or using the joint.

Moving a sore joint seems like the opposite of what you should do when you’re in pain. But staying active with the right type of exercise is an important part of keeping your joints as healthy as possible.

Movement and exercise can lower your pain and help you move better. This is because moving and exercising joints with OA slows the damage to the joint. Strong muscles around the joint can keep it stable, slowing the tissue changes to the joint. Exercise keeps your other body systems healthier (heart, lungs, muscles, bones).

Exercise is different from the regular activities you do every day. Exercise has a reason (purpose) and a goal.

Exercise is also different from work. You may move your body a lot when you work, but it’s not the same as exercising with the goals of helping to manage OA.

What if I’m afraid to move?

It’s common for people in chronic pain to be afraid to move. Chronic pain or having a joint that’s really sore right now can make you feel anxious, afraid, or frustrated. Understanding why movement is important for your joint health and how it helps you keep up your lifestyle can help you deal with the fear.

If you’re afraid to move, try these tips:

  • Talk to someone you trust: It can help to talk to a friend, family member, or your healthcare provider about how you feel.
  • Focus on the positive: When you feel bad, focus on a positive thought to make you feel better.
  • Ask for help: Sometimes you need to ask others for help. You may need support from a healthcare provider who can listen to your concerns and help you find solutions.

How can I exercise when I have pain?

Don’t let pain or the fear of causing pain stop you from being more active or exercising. You can use pain as a guide, even when you have pain before you exercise.

  1. Start by measuring your baseline pain. Baseline pain is rating how bad your pain is and where it is on your body. Rate your pain between 0 and 10 (0 is no pain; 10 is the worst pain you can imagine) and notice where you feel it.
  2. Do an exercise. For example, try walking for 10 minutes on a flat surface (like a sidewalk).
  3. When you’re done exercising, rate your pain again and notice where it is.
  4. If your pain is back to baseline within 24 hours after you did the activity, keep going with this activity.

    If your pain isn’t back to baseline within 24 hours, the activity you did may have been too much for your joint. If you walked for 10 minutes on a flat surface, next time try walking for 5 minutes. Make choices around daily activity (like walking and standing) and exercise. Try to find a balance between both.

    Plan to exercise earlier in the day. If you leave it to the end, you’re less likely to exercise.

    What types of exercise can I do when I have OA?

    Exercise is an important part of good health and the health of your joints. Different types of exercise have different effects on the body, so doing different types of exercise is helpful. Speak with a physiotherapist or exercise specialist if you aren’t sure what exercises are best for you or if you haven’t exercised in a long time. If you have any other health problems or you’ve never exercised before, speak to your family doctor before you start.

    Cardiovascular exercises (for your heart and lungs)
    This type of exercise makes you breathe harder and faster and sends more blood to your heart and lungs. Examples include walking, biking, swimming, cross country skiing, urban poling, and aerobics. When you have OA, short bouts of exercise (such as exercising for 10 minutes) can give health benefits and keep your symptoms manageable.

    Try to work up a sweat. If you’re new to exercise, work toward doing 45 minutes per week of exercise that makes you breathe harder.

    Strength exercises (for your muscles)
    This type of exercise makes the muscles around your joint stronger. This helps to keep your joint stable. You can do strength exercises for different body parts such as your:

    • abdomen (core or belly area)
    • legs, including your hamstrings (back of your thighs) and quadriceps (front of your thighs)
    • hips
    • butt (buttocks or gluteal area)

    To learn more about exercises you can do when you have OA, and to see examples of these exercises, visit GLA:D Canada.

    Range of motion (ROM) exercises (stretching)
    Moving through your joints’ range of motion (how far and in what ways your joints move) is important for joint health. Stretching the muscles around the joint keeps the joint moving well and the muscles relaxed and flexible. Moving the joint through the available range of motion nourishes the cartilage that lines the joint.

    It’s often best to stretch and do ROM exercises after you’re done strength or cardiovascular exercises and your body has warmed up. Examples of ROM exercises include yoga and tai chi.

Current as of: October 2, 2020

Author: Bone & Joint Health Strategic Clinical Network, AHS