Reverse Arthritis Through Exercise – Ultimate Guide

Time to Read: 16 minutes

If you’re suffering from arthritis pain, aerobic, strength, and stretching exercises are an effective way to ease your pain and perhaps even reverse arthritis. 

Before we cover this in-depth, we’d like to start with a quick medical disclaimer. Whether you are new to exercise or already used to an active lifestyle before the onset of arthritis, it is best to consult with your doctor to make sure that you are fit to undergo an exercise program.

Remember to honor your body and never force it to do something it is not yet ready to do or is no longer able to do. Follow the basics of exercise safety to prevent early injury.

Exercise Basics for People with Arthritis

The best exercise for you will be a slow walk or something similar that is very low impact but still gets your heart rate up.

You’re not the athlete from your younger years. Your body has aged, and you have rheumatoid arthritis, so don’t expect to compete with the young folks.

While walking is a good start, a complete exercise program must include aerobic exercise, muscle building or strengthening exercises, and stretching.

Arthritis sufferers should add range of motion exercises which involve simply moving your limbs within their range, like raising your arms to the sides and overhead. We will discuss more on this in the next section.

Since pain and stiffness can occur before, during, or after exercise, it is best to have pain relievers with you, especially if you exercise outside your home. Your choice of pain reliever can be internal medication like ibuprofen or topical pain relievers which provide either heat or cold to the affected part.

Consult with your doctor to know which is best for you. If mild pain occurs before or during exercise, you might be able to ease it by slowing down or by doing a couple of stretches, but if it becomes unbearable, you must stop and rest. If the pain occurs after exercise, consider whether you have pushed yourself too much that day and should slowdown in your next exercise sessions.

Range of Motion Exercises to Reverse Arthritis Pain

neck stretch to reverse arthritis

Range of motion exercises move the limbs in their normal range of movement. Doing these exercises regularly will discourage stiffness and encourage flexibility. Also, these are useful in getting your body used to movement if you have never exercised before. If you are already active, you can do these exercises as a warm-up and cool down. You can also do these exercises during the days when you do not have time for a proper exercise session. Since these are relatively easy exercises that don’t tire the body, you can easily do them when you have a few minutes to spare.

Guidelines for Range of Motion Exercises

  • These exercises are meant to be done slowly. Don’t jerk your body or force it to reach farther than it can. Since only you can know if you feel pain, don’t allow other people to force your range of movement and don’t do the same for them.
  • Remember to breathe normally. Never hold your breath while exercising. You’ll deprive your body of oxygen and could faint in the process.
  • If you are a complete beginner, do range of motion exercises for a week or two before starting other kinds of exercise. Do each of these exercises once a day, and then progress to twice per day. Once you are used to moving your body, you can progress to a gentle aerobic exercise like walking.
  • Do at least two repetitions of each movement. As you become more used to the movements, do up to 6 repetitions or more.
  • Unless it is specified that you have to stand, you can do these exercises while sitting if that is more comfortable for you.

Neck

Turn your head slowly to the right, then back to start. Do the same to the left. It should take two seconds to make the complete turn to one direction. If you are not sure how long two seconds are, say out loud at a normal speed, i.e. as if you are conversing with someone, ‘one thousand one, one thousand two.’

While facing forward, tilt your head down to the right shoulder. It should take you one second to do this. Go back to the starting position then tilt your head to the left shoulder.

Arms

These exercises should take one second to raise and another second to lower.

Raise your arms to the sides at shoulder level (or lower), palms down. Hold for one second, then go back to start.

With your palms facing the floor, raise your arms to the front at shoulder level (or lower). Hold for one second, then raise towards the ceiling. Hold for one second, then go back to start.

With your arms at the side, bend your elbows and place your fingertips lightly on your shoulders. Make circles with your elbows for at least two counts then go the other way for another two counts.

Hands

Either raise your right hand to elbow height or let it hover over your thighs. With your palm facing down, alternately move your hand from left to right. Repeat with the left hand.

With your palms facing each other or the ceiling, alternately open and close your fingers. It should take you one second to do each movement.

Abdomen

Place your hands on your hips. Bend from the waist to the right for a one-second count then go back to start. Repeat with the left side.

Hips

Place your hands on your hips. Slowly move your hips from left to right for at least five counts each.

Knee

These exercises should take one second to raise and another second to lower.

While sitting, raise your right foot off the floor in front of you as high as you can then lower. Repeat with the left.

While standing, raise your right foot off the floor behind you as high as you can then lower. Repeat with the left.

Ankle

While sitting, raise your foot in front of you and support it with a stool. Flex your foot to the front and back for at least two counts. Then turn your feet around clockwise for at least two counts and another two counts going counterclockwise. You can do this for both feet at the same time.

For the Whole body

An alternative to doing the above exercises is to join a tai chi class. The slow, flowing movements of tai chi are easy on the joints and, in the long run, will help to remove all kinds of stiffness in the whole body. If you are a beginner, try to avoid learning tai chi by yourself since you might end up doing the movements incorrectly. It is better to learn the basics from a professional, and then once you have mastered the moves, you can try practicing on your own.

Aerobic Exercises to Reverse Arthritis Pain

aerobic exercise to reverse arthritis pain

Aerobic exercise improves heart and lung fitness, which helps to prevent heart disease. It also burns a lot of calories (while you are doing it) so it can help you to lose weight which, in turn, will help reverse arthritis pain. Excess body weight puts pressure on the joints, which makes them feel more pain.

Before you begin an aerobic exercise program, here are some reminders:

Guidelines for Aerobic Exercise

  • Start with at least 5 minutes of warm-up to prevent injuring your muscles. If you do not warm-up properly, you might feel cramps, or you might even tear your muscles. You can do the range of motion exercises described above as your warm-up.
  • Aerobic exercise is meant to raise the heart rate. You should find it difficult to keep up with a normal conversation, but you should not feel as if you are about to pass out. Stop exercising if you feel dizzy.
  • The longer you have been exercising, the stronger your heart and lungs become. Once you can keep up with a normal conversation while doing your usual level of intensity, it’s time to progress to a faster speed. You can easily check this by saying at least five short sentences out loud. If you are not able to say all of them without huffing, you are doing fine. If you can say all of them without even stopping for breath, you need to move faster.
  • If you stick to your usual speed, you will never obtain the benefits of aerobic exercise which include healthier heart and lungs, and increased calorie burn which leads to faster weight loss. The more intense the aerobic exercise is, the more calories are burned.
  • That said, the older you are, or the later you started exercising, the lower your capacity for aerobic fitness. As long as you maintain the intensity which makes it difficult to keep up with a normal conversation, you are doing fine. Doing more than this means you are over-doing it.

More Tips for Aerobic Exercise

  • There are many ways to do aerobic exercise besides walking, jogging, and swimming. Dancing, playing sports, and even housework can count as aerobic exercise as long as they are done at an intensity that raises the heart rate.
  • To improve and maintain fitness, at least an hour of aerobic exercise should be done every week. This is not to say that you can do one hour of continuous aerobic exercise every Saturday morning and nothing for the rest of the week. Doing this might over-exert your body unless you are already very fit. It is better to sprinkle short exercise sessions ranging from 10 to 20 minutes each throughout the week.
  • If you are still starting out, it is best to alternate rest days with exercise days. For example, only exercise every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Make sure that you have the right footwear and other appropriate equipment for any exercise you choose to do. Using the correct equipment will help prevent injury. This includes proper clothing, which keeps you cool or warm, depending on the activity you choose to do and the weather.
  • Bring water or other sports drinks with you to prevent dehydration, especially if you are going to exercise for longer than 20 minutes. If you only exercise for short periods, make sure to drink a lot of fluid afterward to replace what you have sweated out.
  • If you are overweight, the best aerobic exercises for you are those that do not put strain on the joints. Examples of these are cycling and swimming.

These are the basics for doing aerobic exercise properly, but what are the necessary modifications for arthritis sufferers?

Aerobic Modifications for Arthritis Sufferers

The exercises which should be avoided by arthritis sufferers are those that put too much strain on your joints. The kind of exercise you can do will depend on how severe your arthritis is. Some people will find that they can still run (albeit on soft surfaces and with properly cushioned shoes), while some will find that cycling or swimming is better for them. As long as you remember to honor your body and never force it to do more than it can, you can do whatever aerobic exercise brings you little to no pain.

That said, if you are a complete beginner to exercise, the best aerobic exercises for you are those that put little or practically no strain on the joints. Swimming and aqua aerobics, i.e. aerobics dance done in a swimming pool, are good choices.

If you would rather stay away from water, walking is another great choice. The good thing about walking is you can do it anywhere and at any time as long as you have the proper shoes for it. You can easily squeeze in a walk no matter how busy your schedule is. For example, you can walk for 10 minutes during your lunch period or in the mornings before going to work. You can choose to not take the car if you are only going to the nearby store.

Walking

Take note that for walking to count as an aerobic exercise, it must increase your heart rate. If you are only starting out, a slow leisurely walk is fine, but you must eventually progress to a faster pace.

Once your fitness level increases, you might find that brisk walking no longer elevates your heart rate. If so, you can progress to jogging if your joints can take it. If not, consider something low impact like swimming or cycling. You can also alternate jogging and cycling to avoid the constant pounding of your knee joints. An alternative to cycling is working out on the elliptical trainer. If you feel daring enough, you can also try in-line skating or jumping on a mini-trampoline.

For variety, try to check out exercise classes that are specifically tailored for older people or people living with arthritis. These can include dance or aerobics classes in which the movements have been tailored to minimize stress on the joints.

Here are some aerobic dance moves that you can do while seated in a chair:

Water waves

Raise your arms to the sides with the palms facing down. Move them up and down as if they are waves in the ocean. Move your torso from side to side as you continue to move your arms.

Ferris wheels

Hold your arms away from your sides. Make circles with your forearms first going clockwise then counterclockwise.

Seated jumping jacks

As you raise your arms to the ceiling with the palms up, raise both your feet off the floor as high as you can. Turn the palms down as you lower your arms, and at the same time, lower your feet.

Seated jogging

Bend your elbows and curl your fingers into a loose fist. Move your arms as you would while jogging. Meanwhile, alternately raise your feet off the floor as high as you can.

Swaying trees

Raise your arms to the ceiling with the palms facing each other. Sway your arms as if they are trees swaying to the wind. You can allow your body to move with your arms or keep it steady if you easily get dizzy.

The seated twist

Bend your elbows and keep your hands close to your chest. Make small twists to the right and left with your torso, but keep your head facing forward. You can bend forward slightly then lean back as you twist. If you can, you can also raise your feet off the floor as you do this.

Note: Play some dance music to motivate you and to make your workout more fun. The goal here is not just mobility, but aerobic, so you need to perform these moves fast enough to increase your heartrate. 

Do each move for at least 20 seconds. You can change the sequence if you wish. Try to build up endurance until you can do a 10 to 20-minute workout. If you feel that your fitness level is increasing, do the moves a little bit faster than before.

Strength Exercises to Reverse Arthritis Pain

strength exercises to reverse arthritis

Strength exercises are important for maintaining and improving muscle mass and keeping your metabolism high. This does not mean you have to be a professional weightlifter. In fact, unless you train hard, you will not achieve that kind of strength. What you should aim for is the strength to do your usual activities well without tiring easily. 

For example, if you have strong upper body muscles, you will be able to carry the ordinary things you carry like your work bag, groceries, children, and so on, without ending up with achy arms and shoulders. 

With strong lower body muscles, you will be able to walk farther, climb more stairs, or stand for longer periods without feeling strain.

Since strength exercises make the body build more muscle fibers, you can end up burning more calories a day even while at rest. This is because muscle requires more calories for the body to maintain than fat or bone. 

If the health benefits of strength exercises do not appeal to you, then perhaps the aesthetic advantage will. Regularly doing these exercises will make you look leaner, firmer, and sexier. A pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat, which is why two people of the same weight and height but of different body fat percentages can look very different. The person with less fat and more muscles will look leaner. Also, since muscle is firm, he will not have that unattractive jiggly look.

Here are some reminders before you begin a strength exercise regime:

Guidelines for Strength Exercise for Arthritis Pain

  • Choose the correct weight according to your current strength. You should be able to do 10 to 12 repetitions. If you can easily do more than 12, the weight is too light. If you can’t quite make it to 10, the weight is too heavy.
  • Breathe in when lowering or releasing the weight and breathe out when raising or carrying the weight.
  • All the muscle groups must be trained: upper body, lower body, and abdominals/core.
  • You should do two sets with 10 to 12 repetitions each for each exercise. Rest for at least 30 seconds between each set. There is no time limit for these exercises.
  • You should do strength exercises at least twice a week.
  • As with aerobic exercise, you should do a proper warm-up and cool down to avoid injury.
  • Try to give at least one day of rest for each muscle group after exercising. You can do this by alternating your exercises according to muscle groups or by completing all your exercises within a day and resting the following day.

For those who suffer from arthritis, carrying dumbbells can be difficult. Here are the ways to cope:

How to Ease the Strain of Strength Work

  • Aerobic exercise done with weights can provide the benefits of strength exercise and save time. You can do this by wearing ankle and wrist weights.
  • If you use exercise machines like the elliptical trainer or stationary bike, you can increase the intensity to include strengthening.
  • Swimming and water aerobics will also give you strength training benefits since the water provides tension against the muscles.
  • Yoga and pilates are additional ways to build muscle without the use of weights. However, some moves can be hard on the joints. A good instructor will know how to modify them for you.

Stretching Exercises to Reverse Arthritis Pain

stretching exercises to reverse arthritis pain

Stretching is important to maintain flexibility and also to ease muscles that can tense up after exercising. Ideally, you should stretch after exercising, but you can also stretch as a way to wake up tired muscles. A stretch session is particularly refreshing when done after waking up or after sitting for several hours.

Here are some reminders when stretching:

  • Never force the body to stretch farther than it can. In time, you will notice that you have become more flexible, and you can reach father than you did before, but forcing your body before it is ready will result to injury. You should feel your muscles stretching, but stop immediately if you feel pain.
  • Breathe steadily as you stretch. Try to hold the stretch for at least 5 slow breaths. 

The following are very good stretches to help reverse arthritis pain.

Arm stretch

Clasp your fingers together and turn your palms out. Raise your hands to the ceiling and stretch them upwards as if you are trying to reach something. Then as you bend the right elbow, use your left hand to pull it towards the left. Repeat with the other side.

Back stretch

Raise your arms to the sides at shoulder level. While keeping your hips facing forward, push your right arm back as far as you can while your left arm should be pushed forward. Allow your head to follow the direction of your torso. Repeat on the other side.

Side stretch

Place your hands on your hips and bend towards the right. You should feel the stretch along the left side of your torso. Repeat on the other side.

Thigh stretch

While standing, raise your right foot to the back and hold it with your right hand. Your right knee should remain aligned with the left. Repeat with the other side.

Calf stretch

While seated, raise your lower leg and flex your foot upwards by bringing your toes towards you. You should feel the stretch along your calves.

Hip stretch

Lie on your back and place your right ankle on top of your left knee. Place your hands under your left thigh and bring it towards your chest. Repeat for the other side.

Total leg stretch

Sit on the floor, then try to reach for your toes while keeping your back and knees straight. You don’t have to actually reach your toes if you still can’t, but in time you will.

Dealing With Pain While Exercising with Arthritis

Hopefully, we have made it clear that you should stop exercising if you feel pain or discomfort; however, you can sometimes continue if all you feel is mild pain. Just proceed at a slower pace and skip the more strenuous parts of your workout. If you feel moderate or intense pain during or after exercise, here are the things you can do:

  • Take a break. Sometimes, the pain you feel is a symptom that you are still not used to exercise. If you are a beginner, rest for a few minutes and resume your exercise, but at a slower pace. However, if you still feel the same level of pain upon resuming, stop altogether, and use that day to rest. If necessary, consult with your doctor.
  • Do the range of motion exercises for the painful joint. This will stretch the part and ease out the stiffness that might be the cause of pain.
  • If you continue to feel pain in a particular joint but not in others, it might be best to rest the painful joint and do other forms of exercise that do not involve that joint.
  • To help minimize discomfort, apply topical pain relievers like heat cream, hot or cold compress, or take pain medications.
  • When in doubt whether to continue exercising or not, it is better to be on the safe side. Consult with your doctor to know if you need to make additional modifications to your current exercise regime.

Living with arthritis is not easy, and your pain may never go away. But we have presented some tried and tested methods that have helped many others to reverse arthritis pain. Hopefully you find success as well!