4 Tips for Exercising When You Have Joint Pain

“The pain is so bad, I can barely walk, let alone exercise!” explains Robyn Bari Genn, 54, of Westchester County, New York, who lives with psoriatic arthritis. “It has taken my quality of life from me.”

If you’re like Robyn and the more than 200,000 other individuals diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis each year, you know all too well that even moderate exercise can be painful. Symptoms like stiffness and inflammation can make virtually any form of movement feel far from a proverbial walk in the park.

But doctors say it’s important to get moving anyhow. “When it comes to managing arthritis pain, consistency [in exercise] is key,” says Deeba Minhas M.D., doctor of medicine in the rheumatology division at the University of Michigan. “Start with small goals, maybe just a walk around the block. Even if you take it slow! It’s just important that you complete some form of exercise each day.” Not sure exactly what to do during your daily movement sessions? These tips can help.

Stretch It Out

Focusing on flexibility is key. The more limber and flexible you are, the less stress is put on your joints when you’re sitting or standing upright. But most of us spend a significant amount of time in one position, especially those whose days involve sitting at a desk, so we aren’t getting the stretching we need.

“Performing an upward dog stretch on your hands or even just lying flat on your stomach with arms and legs outstretched for a few minutes each day can be a great way to offset tightness in the front of your hips and spine from sitting too long,” says Michael Infantino P.T., D.P.T., doctor of physical therapy in Baltimore, Maryland and founder of RehabRenegade.com.

“In studies of bedridden patients, active or assisted stretching has been shown to lead to significant improvement in how far the joints could move, in activity function, pain perception and depressive symptoms,” says Minhas.

Focus on Form

In addition to improving flexibility, you want to optimize your mobility. To do that, really pay attention to proper form when you’re doing exercises—even the simplest ones can help, but they must be done correctly.

“We often forget that many exercises fall into a few simple categories: pushing, pulling, squatting, and lunging,” says Infantino. “Being able to perform these movements with great technique makes you more resilient and less susceptible to injury in your daily life.” He suggests modifying movements to meet your current level of strength. For example, give yourself permission to do a shallower lunge, as opposed to a deep one. Start with as few as 10 repetitions and build up from there. “Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity,” he urges.

If you’re unsure whether you’re doing the exercise with proper form, watching yourself in a mirror can help. So can enlisting the help of a personal trainer or physical therapist—look for someone with experience working with people with psoriatic arthritis.

Just Flex

Minhas suggests taking an isolated approach to getting your muscles moving, which may be good news when you’re feeling stiff. “Working each muscle separately with as simple a movement as flexing, is a great place to start,” she says. “Even flexing your biceps to show off to friends is an isometric muscle-strengthening exercise.” She suggests flexing each body part, starting with your head down to your toes, for 10 to 20 seconds, and then releasing. If you feel up to it, taking a Pilates or barre class may be a good option, since those disciplines work with the same theory.

Make It Fun

“The important thing is to choose something you enjoy,” says Infantino. Exercise isn’t going to happen if it feels like a chore, so explore activities that feel fun to you. Grab a buddy and take a walk, or go for a swim at your local YMCA. Swimming is particularly easy on the joints, and also great for cardiovascular health, says Minhas. “Water supports your body weight so there’s minimal stress on the joints,” she explains.

Getting your heart rate up daily is a great way to fight off many diseases. “Numerous studies have shown a reduction in severity of diseases such as psoriasis and arthritis with aerobic exercise,” says Infantino. Thirty minutes a day is ideal; but, if you’re not quite there yet, start with just five to 10 minutes per day and work your way up.

Of course, just because you enjoy an activity doesn’t mean you’ll automatically do it, so set aside the time for that active pastime. This may mean adding it to your calendar or daily schedule. Studies suggest that when people make time to partake in physical activities they enjoy, pain and function may improve, says Minhas.

Just be sure, any time you exercise, to listen to your body. “If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, try something else,” advises Minhas.