Stretches and Exercises for People with Arthritis

Posted on July 25, 2014

arthritis exercise
Article written by: Alfonse F. Neumann III BS, MSA, ACSM, CSCS

As you age, the risk of developing arthritis increases especially if you do not exercise regularly or at least maintain an active lifestyle. What happens is that the cartilage in your joints wears down, and then your joints hurt and feel tender and stiff. The stiffness and pain associated with the arthritis can severely reduce the range of motion in your joints causing you to become less active; and by avoiding physical activity because of the pain or discomfort you will incur significant muscle loss and excessive weight gain. Although the treatment of arthritis usually includes the use of medication, a specialized exercise and flexibility program can help you reduce your pain and fatigue and preserve the joint structure and restore some of its mobility, thus allowing overall physical conditioning, and helping you to maintain a healthy weight, which helps to reduce the excess stress on the joints.

Before beginning an exercise routine people with arthritis should discuss exercise options with their doctors and other health care providers, such as a physical therapist. Once you know what type of arthritis you have and understand your symptoms, you and your doctor or physical therapist can develop a balanced program of physical activity to reduce the damaging effects of arthritis and promote optimal health. There are three main types of exercise that are best for people with arthritis: Range-of-motion: this type of exercise helps maintain or increase flexibility allowing for freer movement, making activities of daily living easier.

Strengthening: exercises help maintain or increase muscular strength. The stronger the muscles are, the more they help support and protect the joints affected by arthritis.

Aerobic or endurance: exercises improve cardiovascular fitness, which helps control your weight and improves your overall health. Weight control is important to people who have arthritis because the extra weight puts more pressure on the joints.

What type of strengthening program is best for you? This will vary depending on your personal preference, the type of arthritis involved, and how active the inflammation is at the time. In general, strength training can be done with small free weights, exercise machines, isometrics, elastic bands, and resistive water exercises.

Pelvic tilt: is a simple exercise that employs the abdominal muscles and lengthens the lower back muscles. To perform the stretch, lie on your back, with your head and neck supported with a thin pillow, with your knees bent and your feet resting firmly on the floor. Place your hands in the small of the back and ensure that there is a space between your back and the floor. Next, contract your abdominal muscles so as to flatten the lower part of your spine along the floor so no space remains. In this position the buttocks should remain relaxed, this will strengthen your abdominal muscles and lengthen the muscles along your lower back. The contraction should be held for 6 to 10 seconds and performed 10 to 20 times. At all times, ensure that you are exhaling during the exertion phase of exercise and inhaling as the body relaxes.

Bridging: Pelvic bridging strengthens the paraspinal muscles, the quadricep muscles, the hamstring muscles, the abdominal muscles and the gluteal muscles. Start by lying flat on your back, with your head and neck supported with a thin pillow, with your knees bent, feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor. Place your hands on the floor at your sides for stability. Keeping the spine neutral, pull your belly button in towards your spine. Maintain this abdominal contraction throughout the exercise.

To perform the exercise, begin to exhale while slowly lifting your hips up toward the ceiling, allowing your buttocks and lower back to rise off of the floor. Stop when your hips are in a straight line with your thighs being careful not to put extra pressure on your shoulders and neck. Hold for 6-10 seconds. When you begin to inhale, relax and slowly lower your hips as close to the floor without touching the floor, and repeat. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.

Hip flexion: strengthens your hip flexors, lower abdominals, and the muscles in front of your thigh. To perform, stand on one leg with the knee slightly bent, stomach tight, and holding onto something stable for balance. Bend the opposite knee and hip, bringing the knee toward your chest, pause for a second and then lower the leg. Repeat 10-15 times, and then alternate legs for 2-3 sets.

Hip abduction: strengthens your hip abductors, gluteal muscles and low back stabilizers. To perform, stand on one leg with the knee slightly bent, stomach tight, and holding onto something stable for balance. Keeping your opposite foot pointing forward, swing that leg out to the side, pause for a second and then lower the leg. Repeat 10-15 times, and then alternate legs for 2-3 sets.

Squats: strengthen your lower back, abdominals, buttocks and thigh muscles. When the surrounding muscles are strengthened, less pressure is put on the lower spine, hips, and knees. To perform, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. With your head and chest up, squat halfway down while staying in a pain-free range of motion. Extend your arms straightforward to help maintain balance. Keep your abdominals tight and maintain your weight evenly on both feet, making sure to keep your knees behind your toes. Repeat 10- 15 times, for 2-3 sets. To modify this, you can perform wall squats, which work the abdominals, buttocks and thighs muscles. To perform the wall squats, began by leaning with your back against the wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and about 16-24 inches out in front of you. Tighten your abdominals and slowly slide down the wall until your thighs are at about a 45° angle, and then straighten your legs, sliding up the wall. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.

Shoulder external rotation: strengthens the external rotators of the shoulder. To perform, tie some theraband/tubing securely to something solid about elbow height. Stand with your left side to the object and grab the tubing with your right hand. While keeping your right elbow at your side and your right hands against your stomach, step to the right until there is some tension on the tubing. Slowly and externally rotate your right arm until your forearm is directly in front of you, pause for a second and return to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.

Shoulder internal rotation: strengthens the internal rotators of the shoulder. To perform, tie some theraband/tubing securely to something solid about elbow height. Stand with your right side to the object and grab the tubing with your right hand. While keeping your right elbow at your side and your right forearm point even directly out in front of you, step to the left until there is some tension on the tubing. Slowly internally rotate your arm until your hand is against your stomach, pause for a second and return to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.

Shoulder flexion: strengthens the anterior deltoids of the shoulder. To perform, stand/sit with arms straight and hands at your side. Slowly raise your arms, palms down, directly out in front of you, not to exceed 90° of shoulder flexion. Pause for a second and return to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.

Shoulder abduction: strengthens the medial deltoids of the shoulder. To perform, stand/ sit with arms straight and hands at your side. Slowly raise your arms, palms down, out to your sides, with a slight angle forward, not to exceed 90° of shoulder abduction. Pause for a second and returned to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.

Bicep curl: strengthens the biceps of the upper arm. To perform, stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your arms hanging down at your sides. Bend your elbows, bringing your hands up toward your shoulders while rotating your palms up toward the ceiling. Slowly lower your hands returning them to your sides. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2- 3 sets.

Rowing: strengthens the posterior shoulder muscles. To perform, tie some theraband/ tubing securely to something solid about elbow height. While standing/sitting face the object. While holding the tubing with your arms straight out in front of you, step backward until you have some tension on the tubing. Bend your elbows and pull your arms back until your elbows are at your sides. Gently squeeze your shoulder blades, pause for a second and return to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times, for 2-3 sets.

Lumbar stretch: this is to stretch the lower lumbar spine. Lying flat on your back with your head and neck supported by a thin pillow, bring both knees to your chest and hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times.

Lumbar rotation stretch: this is to stretch the lower lumbar spine. Lying on your back, with your head and neck supported by a thin pillow, flatten your low back to the ground, bend your knees and keep your feet together on the ground. Rotate your knees to one side toward the floor and hold for 20-30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side. Repeat 3 times on each side.

Seated hamstring: this is safer than doing it standing to reduce risk of injury due to loss of balance. Begin by sitting on the front edge of the chair with your left knee bent and left foot flat on the floor. Straighten your right knee so that your heel is resting on the floor and your toes are pointing toward the ceiling. Keeping your back straight and your chest up, lean forward until you begin to feel a stretch in the back of your right thigh. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times with each leg.

Quadriceps stretch: stretches the muscles in the front of the thigh. Begin by standing next to a counter or something solid that you can hold onto for balance. While contracting your abdominal muscles and doing a posterior pelvic tilt, hold on to the counter with your left hand. Stand on your right leg with the knee slightly bent. Reach around behind you with your right hand and grab your left ankle and pull your heel toward the opposite buttock until you feel a stretch in the front of your left thigh. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times with each leg. To modify this, stand next to a counter or something solid that you can hold onto for balance, and while contracting your abdominal muscles and doing a posterior pelvic tilt, stand on one leg with the knee slightly bent. Bend your opposite knee and place your foot behind you onto a stool or something elevated roughly 12 to 24 inches high and relax that leg. You should feel a stretch in the front of that thigh. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3- 5 times with each leg.

Calf stretch: stretches the muscles in the back of the lower leg. Begin by facing a wall, in a stride stance so that one foot is further out in front of the other. Place your hands on the wall. Keeping the back leg straight with your heel flat on the ground, bend the front knee and lean forward toward the wall until you feel a stretch in the calf of the back leg. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times with each leg.