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Arthritis and physical activity

Arthritis is a term given to a group of conditions that cause pain, stiffness and swelling in a joint.

There are many types of arthritis, including:

  • osteoarthritis - worsening joint disease
  • rheumatoid arthritis - inflammation in the joints
  • infectious arthritis - arthritis from an infection
  • juvenile arthritis - arthritis in those aged 16 or younger

How physical activity can help

Physical activity can help make it easier for you to do everyday activities.

It can:

  • reduce stiffness and pain
  • increase your flexibility
  • strengthen the muscles around your joints
  • improve your overall fitness, energy levels and sense of wellbeing

Regular physical activity will:

  • increase bone strength, reducing your risk of developing osteoporosis
  • help you reach and maintain a healthy weight
  • improve your balance, posture and coordination
  • reduce your risk of other chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes

How much activity people with arthritis should do

To get the most benefits, you should be physically active at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes a day on 5 days a week (or 150 minutes).

What is moderate-intensity activity?

You will know an activity is moderate intensity when:

  • your heart rate is raised
  • you're breathing faster but still able to carry on a conversation
  • you're sweating slightly
  • you're feeling warmer

Try to also include balance, flexibility and muscle strengthening activity on 2 days of the week.

Getting started

If you are not regularly active, start with 10 minutes of exercise every day. Start slowly and listen to your body. You can gradually increase the amount of time you are active.

Talk to your GP or physiotherapist before getting started.

You will have some joint discomfort when you start getting active. But if you are in pain or feel discomfort for 2 hours or more after an activity, you may need to change your activity plan.

Other signs of overdoing it are:

  • feeling very tired all the time
  • a joint becoming less mobile
  • increased joint swelling
  • continuing pain

If you are in pain and have difficulty moving your knees and hips, try:

  • water-based activities such as swimming
  • low-impact activities such as gardening or walking

Avoid vigorous activity during a flare-up, but keep active. A flare-up is when your symptoms become worse. You can continue low-impact activities such as walking. When the flare-up eases, gradually build your physical activity levels up again.

HSE exercise videos

Try some of these home exercise videos. They have been designed by HSE physiotherapists for people with chronic conditions, including arthritis.

10-minute exercise videos on YouTube:

45-minute exercise videos on YouTube:

Choosing a physical activity

The best type of physical activity you can do is a combination of exercises that help your:

  • flexibility
  • muscle strength
  • aerobic fitness

To improve your overall fitness, try an activity such as:

  • walking
  • cycling
  • swimming
  • water walking
  • aqua aerobics

Physical activity with arthritis -

Flexibility exercises for arthritis

Many people with arthritis have joint stiffness that makes daily tasks difficult. Doing daily flexibility exercises helps you maintain your range of motion.

To improve your flexibility, try yoga, Tai Chi or Pilates. If you are seeing a physiotherapist, they may give you a flexibility exercise to do.

Flexibility exercises

Strength exercises for arthritis

To strengthen your muscles, try using weights and resistance bands. The type of strengthening exercises you do will depend on which joints are affected and how severe your arthritis is.

Always check with your GP or physiotherapist before starting a new strength programme.

You can also try climbing stairs and carrying shopping. Try to include these in your activity plan 2 to 3 times a week, leaving a break in between days.

Strength exercises

Balance exercises for arthritis

Balance exercises such as walking backwards, standing on 1 foot, and Tai Chi are important if are at a risk of falling or have trouble walking. Do balance exercises 3 days per week if you are at risk of falling. 

Balance exercises

Page last reviewed: 30 January 2023
Next review due: 30 January 2026