If you struggle with symptoms of arthritis, it might feel daunting to start or maintain an exercise program. But with the right knowledge and equipment, regular exercise can reduce pain, improve joint function and boost the quality of life of people with arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even short workouts can help prevent joint pain from getting worse, according to a May 2019 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Researchers found that people with joint pain who engaged in one hour of moderate-to-vigorous activity a week were less likely to develop a disability years later than those who were less active.
"In particular with arthritis, the cartilage itself doesn't have blood flow. The way to get nutrition to the joints is through the joint lining, and the way that happens is through joint movement," explains Kim Huffman, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center. "People forget that the joint also includes the muscles around it, so it's important to maintain strength of the muscle that moves the joint."
But there's more to exercise than strengthening the muscles for adults with arthritis. In a June 2018 study in Arthritis Research and Therapy, Dr. Huffman and her colleagues found that older adults with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who followed a high-intensity interval walking protocol had reduced disease activity, improved cardiovascular fitness and improved immune function.
Dr. Huffman says people with arthritis should listen to their bodies before (and during) exercise. So if you're feeling sore or experiencing painful inflammation, try a workout that won't put any weight on the joint, like bicycling or the elliptical.
For people with arthritis in their hands who strength train, the type of weight or resistance band makes a difference. In general, people with arthritis in their hands should avoid gripping weights or resistance band handles too hard, says Chris Latchford, a certified hand therapist for St. Luke's University Health Network.
"Typically, if you have arthritis in your hands, avoid really forceful tight grips," Latchford tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Larger handles are always better. If you're making a fist and your knuckles are white, that's not ideal."
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend doing at least two strength-training sessions per week for all adults.
The 5 Best Weights for People With Arthritis
Latchford and Brian Andonian, MD, MHSc, assistant professor of medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine, shared their top picks for weights and resistance bands for people with arthritis in their hands. They also offer tips on what to look for when you buy, below.
1. JFit 2-Pound Neoprene Grip Dumbbells
Neoprene material allows for a more comfortable grip, and the JFit model offers a wider handle to make it easier for people with arthritis in their hands to hold. These light hand weights are available in one to five pounds.
Because of their wider handle, you can easily grip onto them while spinning on an indoor bike for some strength and cardio.
In an ideal world, people with arthritis in their hands would work with an occupational therapist to make custom wide-grip, soft handles for exercise equipment, Dr. Andonian says.
Buy it: Amazon; Price: $13.90
2. Bodylastics Resistance Bands
Resistance bands are a preferred piece of exercise equipment for experts who work with people with arthritis in their hands. That's because holding a handle on a resistance band is more forgiving on hands with arthritis, and you have the option to wrap a band around the wrist to let your hand rest, Dr. Huffman explains.
Bodylastics includes a set of five bands with different levels of resistance, which can be secured to a handle, door attachment and an ankle or wrist strap.
"Resistance bands may put less stress through the small joints of fingers compared to dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells because they limit the extra forces from gravity," Dr. Andonian says. "That can benefit people with hand arthritis."
While some bands put a weight of resistance in pounds, Dr. Andonian says they don't translate exactly. Instead of relying on that, start with lower tensions and work your way up. "Bands can be stacked together to provide a wide range of resistances," he says.
Buy it: Bodylastics; Price: $49.95
3. Henkelion Adjustable Ankle Weights
Choosing weights that don't require you to grip your hands will lessen fatigue, Latchford explains. Cuff weights that go around the ankle or wrist are good options to strength train without using your hands.
"If you have arthritis in your hands, I suggest using gadgets [for exercise or everyday tasks] that take away the stress in your hands," Latchford says. "If we can take out grasping for even part of the workout, you can reduce fatigue in the hands."
Ankle and wrist weights come in varying weights, and as you get stronger you can move up, just like you would a dumbbell or on a machine. These ankle and wrist weights from Henkelion have individual weight bags, allowing you to easily adjust the load. They also have a velcro belt to make it easy to tighten and remove. Try this 20-minute, ankle-weight workout for your upper body.
Buy it: Amazon; Price: $22.99 to $35.99 per pair
4. Rogue Fitness Loop Bands
Mini bands, like these Rogue Fitness Loop Bands, are good for wrist flexion — bending — and extension exercises, Dr. Andonian explains. Like traditional bands, the mini versions come in varying resistances.
These Rogue Fitness mini bands are available in extra-light to ultra-heavy and in nine or 12 inches. Use these bands to do lower-body exercises, such as glute bridges, squats and lateral crab walks, and upper-body moves, such as triceps push-downs, overhead presses and band pull-aparts.
Buy it: Rogue Fitness, Price: $6 to $7 per pair
5. Theraputty Hand Putty
While not a weight or a resistance band, hand putty can help people with arthritis strengthen the muscles and ligaments around their hands, Dr. Andonian explains.
"Hand exercise putty is good for hand grip, finger pinching and finger adduction exercises (bringing the fingers back together when they're apart)," he says. "Hand-specific exercises are very arthritis-friendly because they help strengthen surrounding muscles to decrease stress on the joints."
Buy it: Amazon; Price: $19.57
What to Know Before You Buy Hand Weights or Bands
There are two main things you should look for when shopping for weights or resistance bands, according to experts.
You don't need super-duper heavy weights or extremely tough resistance bands for an effective workout, Dr. Huffman says.
"Unless you're bodybuilding or significantly trying to bulk up, you don't need to a lot of high-weight, low-rep exercises," she says. "There are benefits to a little aerobic activity and low-weight, high-repetition workouts."
Look for weights ranging from two to five pounds when starting out. Once you comfortably perform 20 repetitions, increase the weight, Dr. Huffman says. It's possible to overdo it, with say, 100 repetitions.
You can generally find a good pair of hand weights for around $20, and resistance bands might be a little more expensive because they are usually sold in sets.
Resistance bands come in varying tensions, usually color-coded. If you work with a trainer or a physical or occupational therapist, he or she might be able to provide you with some to get started.
Neoprene-covered weights can make the grip a little more comfortable and a little less slick. When it comes to resistance bands, those with an inner cord or cloth covering can help prevent injury if the band snaps or breaks, Dr. Andonian says.
"And buying a band with higher-quality rubber can help prevent injury and provide more consistent resistance over the full range of motion of an exercise," he says.
Resistance bands made with poor-quality rubber will vary with regard to resistance over the full range of motion, Dr. Andonian says. In other words, you might stop short unexpectedly during the exercise. These products tend to be cheaper, although Dr. Andonian points out that more expensive ones aren't always better, either. In these situations, he says reading product reviews can be helpful.
Finally, choose bands that have thick, rubber grips over the plastic or metal handle casing, Dr. Andonian says.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Physical Activity Programs"
- American Journal of Preventive Medicine: "One Hour a Week: Moving to Prevent Disability in Adults With Lower Extremity Joint Symptoms"
- Arthritis Research and Therapy: "Ten Weeks of High-intensity Interval Walk Training is Associated With Reduced Disease Activity and Improved Innate Immune Function in Older Adults With Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Pilot Study"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"