Woman exercising on a Piltaes reformer

Top 10 exercises for joint pain relief

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Some exercises have the potential to relieve joint pain. Exercise physiologist Andrew Cate suggests 10 of the best choices, and offers advice on how to get the balance right between movement and rest.

Movement is often the best medicine

Exercise can provide a range of benefits for people who suffer from painful joints, such as mild osteoarthritis . These benefits include relief of symptoms, improved joint function and flexibility, increased range of motion, and a boost in mood.

However, the choice of exercise is crucial, and the focus should be gentle, low or zero impact activities that suit your ability and condition. Make sure to start out gently, adjusting the intensity and duration to suit your symptoms, and build up gradually if your body responds well.

10 low impact exercises

Experiment with the following ten exercises to see what works best for you: 

1. Aqua aerobics

Aqua based workouts are an ideal activity for people seeking joint pain relief, as the water supports your weight. It can boost strength and increase fitness levels, and it’s often performed in warmish water, which may be soothing on your joints.

2. Cycling

Because you sit while cycling, there is reduced pressure on the knees, ankles and hips, allowing you to boost aerobic conditioning and leg strength while reducing joint stiffness. Be it on a stationary bike, or riding in the great outdoors, cycling is a great way to add variety to your exercise routine and burn a few calories.

3. Light weights

Weight training offers a wide range of benefits, including improved strength and range of motion, and increased bone density. Lighter weights can still be beneficial and place less pressure on your joints. Just make sure to perform multiple sets and aim to train at least twice a week.

4. Tai Chi

Tai Chi includes movements performed in a slow and controlled manner. This allows the joints to remain stable while working the muscles with little or no impact. Potential benefits of Tai Chi include relief of joint pain and reduced joint stiffness

Nordic walking

Using hand held poles while you walk, known as Nordic walking, can be a great way to exercise if you are looking for joint pain relief in the lower body. The poles make walking more challenging, increase stability and balance, and reduce pressure on the hips, knees and ankles because the arms help to propel the body forward.
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6. Swimming

Swimming  allows you to be active and challenge the cardiovascular system without impact or jarring the joints. Experiment with techniques to find what works best for you, such as freestyle, breast stroke and backstroke, or use floatation devices to help target the upper or lower body.

7. Pilates

Pilates is a low-impact activity that is highly focused on developing muscular strength and core stability. This may help to stabilise the joints by strengthening the muscles around them, and by improving posture and balance. You can progress from floor-based exercises to reformer machines.

8. Elliptical trainers

Elliptical trainers, sometimes known as cross trainers, are an exercise machine that simulate the motion of running, but without any impact or stress on your joints. The handles are optional, giving you the choice of focusing more on the upper or lower body to suit your condition.

9. Yoga

Yoga combines deep breathing, gentle poses and stretching to help improve flexibility, balance, and joint range of motion. There are many different types of yoga, so experiment to find a style that works best for your body.

10. Rowing

Just like cycling, rowing involves exercise from a seated position to ease the load on your lower body. It’s great at strengthening the upper body and abdominal core. Variations include kayaking, canoeing, dragon boating and rowing machines.

An important note on joint pain

It can be a balancing act knowing when to rest, and when to exercise if you experience joint pain. Warning signs that indicate you need to rest, or seek medical treatment, include:
  • Pain that occurs during, or immediately after exercise
  • Intense and localised pain, especially if it wakes you up at night
  • Excessive swelling or bruising
  • If the pain gets progressively worse or fails to dissipate after a few days
  • Significant muscle weakness where the pain occurs