Working out a sore and swollen knee with osteoarthritis (OA) may feel like the last thing you want to do, but there are plenty of reasons to stay active. In fact, it's not only safe but beneficial to regularly move arthritic knees. Follow the techniques below to safely strengthen and stretch knees affected by OA.
If you've been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in your knees, it's important to consult with your doctor or physical therapist first to make sure you're cleared to exercise and to ask if they have any recommendations on specific moves. And stop any exercise that leads to knee buckling or locking or that increases your knee pain.
Why Exercise Is Beneficial for Knee Osteoarthritis
Once you get the OK from your doctor, it helps to understand why continuing to work out is essential in spite of your OA symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, maintaining a moderate-intensity exercise routine can strengthen the muscles that support your knees, particularly the quadriceps muscle in the front of the thigh and the hamstring muscle in the back. The stronger these knee-supporting structures become, the more they can reduce the strain placed on the joint itself and improve your overall pain.
On top of this, gentle range-of-motion exercises can help lubricate the arthritic joint by bringing in a friction-reducing substance called synovial fluid. Not only that, but exercise help to reduce inflammation-causing substances in the synovial fluid, according to a 2013 study publish in Molecular Medicine Reports. This joint fluid can prevent stiffness from developing and may cause your knee to feel more mobile.
Lastly, consistent exercise (along with a health diet) can help you maintain a healthy body weight, which also decreases the pressure on your arthritic knee joint.
Best Exercises for Knee Osteoarthritis
If you're ready to get moving in a gentle, low-impact way, try the following exercises which are both safe and effective for knee osteoarthritis.
1. Hamstring Stretch
When dealing with OA, Kaiser Permanente recommends stretching the hamstring muscle, which lies in the back of your thigh and attaches just below the knee joint. Doing this can help improve the muscle's flexibility and assist with maintaining the knee joint's range of motion.
- Lie on your back in bed or on the floor.
- Interlace your fingers and grab the thigh of your affected leg. You can also hold on to the ends of a towel that is wrapped around your thigh.
- Pull the leg toward you until your thigh is facing straight up toward the ceiling. Then, slowly straighten your knee out until a stretch is felt in the back of your leg.
- Hold the stretch for 60 seconds and complete this stretch three to four times a day on each leg.
Be sure not to cause pain or force the motion. The stretch should be mild in intensity.
2. Quad Stretch
In addition to the hamstrings, it's also important to maintain flexibility in your quadriceps. They span the length of the front of your thighs from your pelvis to your knee caps. Kaiser Permanente recommends the following stretch for this area.
- Stand next to a wall with a chair behind you.
- Place the affected leg behind you so that your foot and half of your lower leg are making contact with the seat of the chair.
- Tighten your buttocks and shift your body weight slightly forward until you feel a mild pull in your thigh near the top of your knee. You can touch the wall beside you for balance as needed.
- Hold the stretch for 60 seconds before releasing the tension. Again, try to complete the exercise between three and four times each day.
Make sure to keep your body upright and to avoid leaning forward as you do this exercise.
In addition to stretching, increasing the strength in the muscles that protect your arthritic knee is an important part of reducing your symptoms. The Arthritis Foundation recommends mini-squats as a good way to strengthen the quadriceps muscles in the front of your knee.
- Stand with the back of a chair in front of you and with your feet held shoulder-width apart
- Slowly bend your knees as you sit your butt backward. The motion should be similar to the one you make when you sit down into a chair.
- Keeping your knees from moving forward past the end of your toes, squat down as far as you are able to without knee pain. It is ok if you don't bend very far.
- Hold this position for six seconds before returning to the starting point. Start with three to four repetitions and work up to eight to 10 per day.
As the exercise becomes easier, you can increase to two to three sets and can also hold light dumbbells to up the intensity.
4. Seated Leg Raise
Another nice way to activate your quads without placing a lot of pressure on the knee joint itself is the seated leg raise. This exercise is a good option for people with knee arthritis to relieve pain and improve their overall function, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
- Sit in a kitchen chair with your knee bent to a 90 degree angle
- Slowly kick your affected leg forward as you focus on tightening your thigh muscle.
- When your lower leg is parallel to the ground (or as close as you are able to come to this position), hold it there for 30 seconds before lowering it down to the floor.
- Repeat the movement 10 times and try to do this exercise twice per day. As it gets easier, a light ankle weight may be fastened to your leg to increase the challenge.
5. Seated Hamstring Curl With Resistance Band
To balance out your leg strengthening, the Arthritis Foundation suggests using a resistance band to work your hamstring muscles. This exercise, which can be easily done while sitting in a chair, is a great option for people with knee arthritis as it does not require you to stand (which is sometimes painful with this condition).
- Sit in a chair with a resistance band looped around your ankles. Make sure the band has some tension, but is loose enough to allow you to move properly.
- Position one leg slightly in front of the other with the leg you'll be working in the back.
- Press the heel of the front foot down into the floor as you bend the other knee back under the chair.
- When you are unable to flex your back leg any more, hold this position for six seconds before releasing.
- Do between three and 10 reps of the exercise and work up to completing three sets daily.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: “Exercise helps Ease Arthritis Pain and Stiffness”
- Kaiser Permanente: “Knee Arthritis- Tips and Exercises”
- National Arthritis Foundation: “6 Exercises for Knee OA Pain”
- Harvard Medical School: “Moving Away From Knee Osteoarthritis”
- Molecular Medicine Reports: Effects of exercise therapy on knee joint function and synovial fluid cytokine levels in patients with knee osteoarthritis.