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10 Types of Exercise to Relieve Joint Pain

Juliette Kando is a dancer, choreologist, author on fitness and health, and Fellow of the Benesh Institute at the Royal Academy of Dance.


There are many gentle, relaxing, and beneficial forms of exercise that can help combat arthritis. They all make you more flexible and stronger to avoid future problems. No fewer than ten of them are discussed here. In addition, most importantly, at the end of the article, we also mention those types of exercise that are definitely harmful for people with arthritis—and must be avoided like the plague. But first, where does arthritic pain come from?

The Root Cause of Arthritis

Before trying to choose between one or more of the ten types of exercise to ease arthritic pain, it is important to find out: what caused the joint pain in the first place? It could have happened suddenly, perhaps as a blow or a fall. Did you lift something that was too heavy? Do you sleep in the wrong position? Even if the pain has become chronic, it must have started somewhere, for some reason. The prevailing reasons for arthritis are bad posture, overuse, and a poor movement style in small movements, like wrist and hand movement. In most cases, bad posture and bad movement are chronic habits that can be corrected. Most likely, the affected joint suffers because it is (1) misaligned, (2) its mobility is hindered, and (3) it is too weak to carry weight; its adjoined muscles cannot bear the weight the joint has to support. So the solution to ease the pain is to learn more about:

  • alignment
  • increased mobility through passive stretching
  • strengthening the affected joint

Once you become familiar with the above concepts, you will soon achieve excellent results.


Alignment is the placing of bones in relation to one another in the most beneficial way for movement and weight bearing. Before even attempting to heal a joint back to health, the alignment of the two bones attached to it, must be corrected. For example, if you have fallen arches in the feet, the knees droop inwards and, over time, they will show symptoms of arthritis. Inevitably, the next joint up, the hip joint is also affected. You can correct misalignment with manipulation to create passive mobility. What's that then in plain English?

Passive Mobility

Passive mobility occurs when someone else, like perhaps a therapist, is moving parts of your body while you remain relaxed. When a baby is being changed, the baby is passively being moved by its mother. You can create passive mobility in your own body with isolated self massage and manipulation to gently move and realign an injured joint. The key is to try to move each body part through each of the 3 spatial dimensions as shown on the next picture.

Moving Through 3 Dimensions of Space

sagittal=like head moves saying "yes", transverse="no", frontal="maybe" (/ \ drop ear towards shoulder).

sagittal=like head moves saying "yes", transverse="no", frontal="maybe" (/ \ drop ear towards shoulder).

Gaining Strength Through the Right Type of Exercise

Once the joint has been re-aligned and made more flexible with gentle manipulation, it should no longer hurt and be ready for the next stage of training, which is to gain strength. Provided it doesn’t hurt any more, the joint is now ready for conditioning, for stronger movements like lifting, weight bearing, speed and endurance.

All ten gentle types of exercise listed below are also safe and beneficial for overweight people with joint pain or confirmed arthritis. They all help to realign the bones, make the sore joint more mobile, and tone up the surrounding muscles. So here they come in no particular order.

1. Warm Water Therapy

Once your body is submerged in warm water, either in a hot bath, or even better in a jacuzzi, it can move in many new ways you couldn’t tolerate before. The water takes pressure off the joints and creates space between them. Moving in warm water loosens the joints, improves circulation and helps reduce pain and swelling. In short, warm water is soothing. It helps reduce the pain in aching feet, ankles, knees, hips, backs, shoulders and necks.

You can join a spa, own a hot tub, or take a holiday to a warm ocean to ease your aches and pains. Failing that, there are many gentle exercises, massage and manipulation techniques that can be applied in an ordinary home bath, even under the shower. A sink full of hot water or a small foot bath can work wonders for aching hands and feet.

2. Self-Massage and Manipulation

Consider your hands to be the mother of your body. What do we do instinctively when we get hurt? Touch the affected body part with a hand. A dog licks his wounds. You too can use your hands to explore and find particular pressure points, yes, the bits that hurt the most. Hands can guide and reposition misaligned joints. Use self-massage and manipulation to loosen tension and make your aching joints mobile again. Self-massage combined with deep yoga breathing can ease the pain away. The trick is to really relax the joint while manipulating it.

3. Swimming

Swimming and moving in water takes the weight off your body and allows a much greater range of movement than you have on dry land. While the water is supporting you, your muscles are challenged to move against the water resistance and thereby gain in strength. Rather than swimming long pool lengths for aerobic exercise and heart pumping, try inventing new moves in the water. The moves you find most pleasant will also be the most beneficial for your particular body. The body is very intelligent in that sense. It instinctively knows which moves works best to heal your pain by triggering a pleasure factor. Rule of thumb: don’t stress, enjoy. Remember my motto? “No Pain, Just Gain!”

4. Burdenko Water Exercise

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The Burdenko method is water therapy leading to dry land exercise for rehabilitation. Wearing a light flotation vest, you learn to move in deep water. Gradually, as you become more mobile and stronger, you may move to shallower waters and gain more strength until finally, your body can cope easily with full-on gravity on land. Former Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan is among its success stories. Less known but more newsworthy are the results of the Burdenko method with people who have had serious injuries, from lower back, neck and knee problems, even to those with some degree of paralysis. By combining water and land exercises in a specific manner, using specially designed equipment, the Burdenko method is becoming increasingly popular.

5. Floor Exercises

With floor exercise, you tip the plane of motion from upright to horizontal and everything changes. From balance, sensation, to circulation and effort, all is different now, and easier. Floor exercises allow a much larger range of movement and help to loosen and repair aching joints. For example, to illustrate the difference between moving the hip joint in the vertical plane (standing up) and the horizontal (lying down), get off your chair now and do a high kick. How far does your leg go? Now lie down on your back and do the same high kick again as shown on the picture below. Can you feel the difference?

Use gravity to your advantage.

Use gravity to your advantage.

Use Gravity to your Advantage

Did you notice how much higher your leg went when you were lying flat on your back? This is because in the upright position you must lift the leg against the force of gravity. When you lie down, once you pass 90 degrees, the leg that goes “up” towards your head is actually going “down” into gravity. That way, it is much easier to stretch the hamstrings (the bit behind the knee) and loosen the hip joint to avoid painful and expensive hip replacement operations in the future. I hope this makes sense to you, because if it does, you have overcome a big hurdle in your fitness education.

Now let us see by what other means gravity can be used to the body's advantage, rather than its detriment by introducing the Gravity Inversion Table.

6. Hanging Upside Down on a Gravity-Inversion Table

The human skeleton is nothing other than a framework that carries your body around throughout its challenging lifetime. If someone was to build a high rise building without using a spirit level, to ensure that all supports were best balanced against the constant downward pushing force of gravity, then that building would soon collapse. Similarly when someone has flat feet, knocked knees, stiff hip joints, an over-curved spine and neck, plus some extra weight to carry, the poor joints are sure to hurt and not a lot of energy is left to move around or to exercise. But there is hope.

A gravity-inversion table can literally reverse all the damage done to the body. It helps to loosen all the joints through gentle anti-gravity traction as shown in the next video.

What About Clicking or Grinding Noises in the Joints?

Sometimes when you have not moved a joint in a long time and begin to exercise, you hear little clicking and grinding noises while exercising. This is nothing to worry about. As you gently go through the motion of say, doing a high kick on the floor, the little noises that you may hear in the hip joint become fewer and fewer until they completely disappear. Gently moving a stiff joint has the same effect as oiling the rusty hinges on a squeaking door.

The next video, by Aliesa George, is a good example of how easy it is to recondition the kneecap with a simple floor exercise.

Reconditioning the Kneecap

7. Walking

A stroll in the woods helps loosen knees and ankles.

A stroll in the woods helps loosen knees and ankles.

Seek every opportunity to use your legs instead of the car. Pay attention to how you walk.

How to Walk

  • wear no shoes or good shoes
  • lead with the pelvis (your center of gravity), not the head & eyes
  • lift the chest
  • drop and relax shoulders by the side, not in front of the body
  • imagine someone pulling you up by a high pony tail

This brings the head up and back, above the spine.

  • drop the chin (to lengthen the back of the neck)
  • open your eyes

Again, don't lead with the head and eyes. Trust your eyes to tell your brain which foot to put down next. Don't allow your eyes and head to outrun your feet. Why? Firstly it looks weird, secondly you won't get there any sooner, on the contrary: when the upper body is carried in front of the center of gravity (the pelvis), it is much harder for the lower back muscles to keep you upright. To sum up, walking in front of yourself is ugly and inefficient. Next?

  • keep neck and head above the spine

Having all that under your belt, pay attention to your

  • breathing

To cleanse the lungs and boost the heart, coordinate the rhythm of your walk with your breath, always making sure that the out-breaths (the rubbish/garbage) are longer than the strong, fresh and clean in-breaths you take.

8. Yoga / Pilates

Joining a yoga or Pilates class in your neighborhood is fun. You make new friends, share problems, learn more about your body. If you have chronic joint pain or arthritis anywhere in your body, tell the teacher before joining the class. Only do the moves that don’t hurt. Usually the teacher can give you a simplified version of the same exercise.

You may be given a supporting cushion, bolster, or belt to make practice easier. In a yoga or Pilates class, you find out which moves you like and those that are more challenging. Then, when you go home you can try those difficult moves again, perhaps in a slightly modified way until you proudly return to the class the following week and show great improvement.

9. Cycling

Cycling is the most common form of transport in Holland.

Cycling is the most common form of transport in Holland.

Cycling as a Means of Transport

Dutch people use the bicycle as their default means of transport. They cycle to work, to school, along the canals. Sometimes a whole family: mum and dad holding hands with one child on the back seat, another on the front seat, a third cycling along on a small bike.

In Holland, you see many people of all shapes and sizes, many elderly, cycling on bikes with high handle bars, keeping their backs tall and straight.

As always, the best type of exercise is both functional and fun, or you’ll soon give it up. So unless you can cycle outdoors, to a particular destination, forget it.

10.Tai Chi - Gentle and Most Effective

Tai Chi is gentle, precise, makes you flexible, well balanced and strongly centred.

Tai Chi is gentle, precise, makes you flexible, well balanced and strongly centred.

Doctors at the Arthritis Foundation report that Tai chi is an effective type of exercise for those with tender joints and arthritis. Tai chi is a low impact traditional Chinese marital art form. Like yoga, Tai chi combines

  • meditation with
  • slow, gentle movements
  • deep breathing and
  • relaxation, to improve
  • balance (which helps to prevent falling)
  • circulation
  • flexibility
  • strength
  • muscle tone and
  • coordination.

In short, the gentle and body-conscious nature of tai chi relieves chronic pain and increases energy and endurance.

Having discussed the benefits of ten best types of exercise for people with signs of arthritis, it is also necessary to warn you off those types of exercise that can do more damage than good, especially when you carry excess weight. So which types of exercise should you avoid?

Types of Exercise to Avoid

You should NOT do the following types of exercise if you suffer from arthritis.

  • Any high impact exercise like jogging, running, skipping etc because of over-compression on already damaged joints.
  • Any one-sided racket sports – tennis, badminton, including golf because of their imbalanced nature (using the body to one side only).

To Conclude

Ultimately, you are your own health care provider. No painkillers will cure the real cause of arthritis, on the contrary. Numbing pain with pills actually removes the warning signs that something might be seriously wrong with a joint. Treating arthritis anywhere in the body is only possible by following the three progressive stages of recovery:

  1. Check alignment and realign the joint.
  2. Gain flexibility with passive mobility (gentle stretching, self massage and manipulation).
  3. Gain strength

With those three goals in mind, choose one or several of the ten best types of exercise to ease arthritic pain. With regular, mindful, practice you are sure to improve your condition.

Should you have any further questions or tips, please share them in the comments discussion below.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Juliette Kando FI Chor


Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on March 14, 2012:

You are welcome Eliza. I hope that you succeed in curing your pain.

Lisa McKnight from London on March 14, 2012:

This is a great hub. I recently started Bokra dancing and found all my old joint and knee pain returning. A chiropractor warned me it was bad for joint pain. This is a good reminder of what I can do well. Thanks Sue. Voted up.

Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on March 08, 2012:

Hello treadmillreview,

Like I said above,running is a high impact form of exercise and not recommended for overweight people with joint pain as it can aggravate the condition. Swimming is much safer.

treadmillreview on March 07, 2012:

Very useful and informative. There are some things on here that I've never even heard of! Personally, I'm a fan of running and swimming. Great hub!

Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on March 03, 2012:

Hi sord87,

You are right, walking is a good way of keeping the joints mobile. Thanks for the read and yes, you are welcome to share this hub on your Facebook wall.

sord87 on March 03, 2012:

I prefer to use walking as it require less hard pressure on our body but quite effective for health.I suggest it for daily activity plus self massage,both will enhance our blood circulation as well as quality of living.

Interesting,hope you don't mind if i share it on my facebook wall!

Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia, southern Spain on March 03, 2012:

I agree with you cyclingfitness, that is why I mentioned the Dutch who use traditional bikes with high handle-bars so you can sit up straight while cycling. Unlike racing bikes which must be a real killer for the back.

Liam Hallam from Nottingham UK on March 03, 2012:

While cycling is a great exercise it can also lead to joint problems if a bike is incorrectly set up. Particularly lower back pain and knee pain. Therefore i'd recommend that anyone with joint pain eases themselves in to a program of cycling after a proper bike fitting.

Interesting hub.

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