Arthritis treatment exercises

Studies show that regular and appropriate physical activity or exercise help improve pain tolerance, mood and quality of life for people with arthritis.

About arthritis and exercise

With arthritis, everyday tasks can be challenging and the idea of becoming more physically active could be daunting. Experiencing ongoing pain, joint stiffness and fatigue can be extremely discouraging. However, studies show that regular and appropriate physical activity help improve pain tolerance, mood and quality of life for people with arthritis.

Physical activity brings benefits

Benefits of physical activity include:

  • reduced joint pain and stiffness
  • increased joint flexibility and movement
  • development of muscle strength
  • relief of muscular tension
  • keeping bones and cartilage healthy and strong
  • helping to control joint swelling
  • building up heart and lung function
  • assistance in developing good sleep patterns
  • reduced fatigue, anxiety and depression
  • improved weight loss and, in turn, decreased stress from weight-bearing joints, eg, hips and knees.

Remember: Always check with your doctor before starting a new physical activity programme, especially if you have not been active for some time or if you have any medical problems.

The best kind of physical activity for you depends on your arthritis and which joints and muscles are affected.

Use it or lose it!

Physical activity is essential to maintaining resilient, strong muscles and joints. Inactivity decreases joint stability and mobility and can make your arthritic symptoms worse in the long run.

Being physically active should be part of your self-management plan, along with taking your medication, having a balance between rest and recreation, eating a healthy diet and using joint protection techniques.

Low impact activity

Generally, low-impact activities are the best. Some of these include:

  • walking
  • swimming
  • aqua jogging
  • hydrotherapy
  • cycling
  • T’ai Chi.

Try to make physical activity a regular part of your life; at least three times a week is a good start.

How should you exercise?

Start slowly, especially if you haven’t been active for a while. You may need to pause for a small rest during periods of activity. If you have had a joint replacement, check with your surgeon or physiotherapist about what movements to avoid.

There are three types of physical activity, it is best to include all of these in your plan.

  • Cardiovascular or aerobic: This gets your heart pumping and your lungs working – a little bit of huff and puff goes a long way, eg, walking, cycling, swimming, dancing.
  • Strengthening: This helps build well-toned muscles which will better support joints and absorb the physical stresses and strains of everyday life.
  • Flexibility: Stretching exercises increase your range of movement and mobility. Always remember to warm up your muscles before you stretch. Move carefully and slowly, holding the stretch for about 30 seconds and, most importantly, stop if you feel pain. Only go as far as your comfort level allows.

When not to exercise

Be mindful of pushing the limits and being overly active when experiencing a flare of your arthritis, as exercising could aggravate the symptoms and cause further damage. Rest at these times and gently start again when the flare dies down.

Helpful tips

Follow these tips to get moving:

  • Make a contract with yourself: six to 12 weeks is a reasonable time commitment for a new physical activity programme to become established.
  • Make a physical activity diary or calendar - put this where you can see it and fill it out every day.
  • Encourage a ‘buddy’ (family or friend) to join you for company and help each other keep on track.
  • Start your programme gradually. Begin your new physical activity for 10 to 15 minutes and work up from there. For good health and wellbeing, aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week. Give your plan a chance to succeed. Sticking with it makes you a winner.
  • Review the programme after six weeks – it’s your programme and it should be enjoyable. If it’s not fun, try something else!
  • Reward yourself for a job well done when you reach your first goal - then set your next goal with confidence.

Free exercise guide

An exercise guide (shown below) for people with arthritis (Arthritis – exercises to keep you moving) has been developed jointly by Arthritis New Zealand and Physiotherapy New Zealand. The exercises are designed to benefit people with arthritis or a rheumatology condition which is affecting their joints or muscles. Talk to your doctor or physiotherapist if you have any queries about what exercises are best for you. 

image of booklet about exercise to keep you moving with arthritis

Other exercise resources

Arthritis New Zealand has other exercise resources, eg, DVDs, available to purchase through its website.


Arthritis NZ offers information and support to all people affected by arthritis. Phone 0800 663 463.

Credits: provided by Arthritis New Zealand. Latest update by Health Navigator June 2015.