Exercises That Worsen Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA), also called degenerative joint disease, is a condition that develops from wear and tear to the body’s joints over time. OA can cause joint pain, stiffness, limited range of motion, crepitus (popping or crackling sounds in the joint), swelling, and muscle weakness.  

Osteoarthritis affects more than 30 million Americans and can affect any joint, although it is most common in the back and spine, hips, knees, neck, shoulders, fingers, and hands. 

If left untreated, osteoarthritis typically worsens over time and can lead to permanent joint damage and disability. Exercise plays a crucial role in both the prevention and treatment of osteoarthritis, although some exercises are better than others.

This article will discuss the importance of exercise for managing osteoarthritis as well as the types of exercises that should be avoided.

Physical therapist stretching woman's knee

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Benefits of Exercise for Osteoarthritis 

Osteoarthritis causes increased pressure and resulting pain and inflammation within affected joints. Exercise plays a key role in preventing joint damage and decreasing irritation. Exercise strengthens surrounding muscles that help to support and stabilize joints and decrease pressure, especially within large weight-bearing joints like the hips and knees.

Exercise can also improve blood flow and synovial fluid quality within joints, helping to improve range of motion and relieve joint stiffness. Synovial fluid fills the space between joints, providing nutrients to the cartilage and lubricating joints to allow bones to move smoothly without friction to the cartilage

Healthy synovial fluid normally contains high levels of hyaluronic acid that helps provide a lubricating effect. In osteoarthritis, the amount of hyaluronic acid is reduced; therefore, it cannot adequately lubricate joints and prevent cartilage damage from friction. This can lead to even more pain and disability with osteoarthritis.

Exercise has the potential to increase the weight of hyaluronic acid and the viscosity of the synovial fluid within arthritic joints, which can help improve joint lubrication and relieve pain.

Exercise as a whole also has specific benefits, which can help decrease widespread inflammation throughout the body. The benefits include reducing levels of elevated:

Exercises That Make Osteoarthritis Worse 

With osteoarthritis, it is best to avoid activities that can stress your joints to minimize further joint inflammation and pain. High-impact activities that can worsen symptoms of osteoarthritis in your hips or knees include:

  • Running
  • Jumping
  • Deep squatting and bending
  • Stair climbing
  • Hiking
  • Prolonged standing 

Sports and activities that require repetitive and prolonged overhead arm use like playing tennis, overhead weightlifting, and painting walls and ceilings, as well as motions like planks, pushups, and dips that require weight-bearing through the upper extremities, may aggravate symptoms of osteoarthritis in the neck and shoulders. 

Your joints will endure significant pressure, friction, and irritation with repetitive or high-impact activities if the muscles lack adequate strength to support them. A physical therapist can work with you to help build up strength in the muscle groups needed to support your joints. 

Exercises That Help Osteoarthritis

There are many exercises that can help osteoarthritis, including strength training, walking, water exercise, stretching, and more.

Strength Training Exercises

Strength training is important for maintaining proper muscle balance and functional strength needed to support your joints. With osteoarthritis, strengthening the muscles can help offload pressure on the affected joints by allowing the muscles to absorb more shock and force, reducing joint irritation and pain. 

Common muscle groups that often need to be strengthened to support arthritic joints include the:

When participating in strength training, always start with lightweight or resistance and gradually increase the weight over time as you build up strength. 

Aerobic Exercises

Aerobic or cardiovascular exercise is important for decreasing inflammation throughout the body. It also helps maintain proper circulation to supply oxygen and nutrients to muscles and joints, which can lessen inflammatory symptoms of arthritis. 

Regular cardiovascular activity can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which can significantly decrease pressure at painful weight-bearing joints of the hips and knees. Overweight individuals who lose 5% of their body weight can see significant changes in osteoarthritis symptoms and improvements in physical wellbeing.

Stretches for Flexibility 

Stretching can help improve your flexibility and joint mobility by decreasing joint pain and stiffness. Aim to hold stretches for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat at least three times.


Walking is one of the best low-impact, aerobic exercises that can improve your blood flow, help you lose weight, and decrease inflammation throughout your body. Walking up or down hills can also improve the strength of your leg muscles, but should be done with caution as inclines and declines can place increased pressure on the joints.

Water Exercises

Aquatic exercises performed in a pool are particularly beneficial for improving joint mobility and muscular strength. Water exerts buoyancy that reduces weight bearing through your joints, thereby decreasing pressure and improving the ability of your joint to move with less pain.

Exercise is highly recommended for patients with osteoarthritis and is generally more effective when supervised by a physical therapist.

Additional Tips 

When starting a new physical activity or increasing the amount of exercise in your routine, adjustments should be made gradually, especially if you are typically sedentary throughout the day. This will allow your body to acclimate to the change without causing too much stress on your joints and muscles.

If your osteoarthritis symptoms impact your daily life and are getting worse over time, you should consult with your healthcare provider about trying physical therapy. A physical therapist will be able to assess your joint mobility, range of motion, strength, and quality of daily movements to devise a customized exercise plan to fit your needs. 

Always make sure to speak with your healthcare provider before beginning an exercise program or physical therapy to obtain clearance and make sure you are healthy enough to engage in increased physical activity. 


Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes joint pain, inflammation, stiffness, and decreased range of motion from repetitive wear and tear over time that damages the cartilage within joints. It occurs anywhere in the body but most often in the knees, hips, spine, shoulders, hands, and fingers.

Exercising is crucial for preventing and treating osteoarthritis, especially to reduce joint stiffness and improve the strength of muscles to support arthritic joints. High impact and repetitive activities should be avoided to reduce joint irritation. Before beginning any new exercise program or physical therapy, make sure you receive clearance from your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell 

If you are living with osteoarthritis, healthy lifestyle habits like regular exercise can help decrease inflammation, joint pain, and stiffness, and increase the strength of your muscles to support your joints. By taking a proactive approach to the management of your osteoarthritis, you can set yourself up for better long-term outcomes and improved quality of life.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Physical activity and your heart

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By Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT
Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, is a medical writer and a physical therapist at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey.