Structured Exercise Programs Benefit Arthritis Sufferers, from Harvard Medical School’s Arthritis Special Health Report

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Believing the myth that exercise causes and worsens arthritis could be detrimental to arthritis sufferers.

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Despite all we know about arthritis, myths about the disease persist. One of the many is that exercise can cause and worsen arthritis. But according to a newly updated report from Harvard Medical School, Arthritis: Keeping your joints healthy, believing this myth could be detrimental to arthritis sufferers.

Unless you are a jackhammer operator or a serious athlete prone to high-impact injuries, you are unlikely to develop arthritis from overusing your joints. On the contrary, those with arthritis commonly discover that if they don’t exercise regularly, they’ll pay the price in pain, stiffness, and fatigue.

A 2009 review article in Current Opinion in Rheumatology asserts that both aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises are safe and effective for people with chronic arthritis. Below are brief summaries of different forms of structured exercise programs (most of which are offered by local Arthritis Foundation chapters) and their potential benefits.

Water-based programs. Also known as aquatic or pool therapy, these group classes are done in water that's nearly 90° F and feature a variety of exercises, including range-of-motion exercises and aerobics. According to one study, people who took the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program improved knee and hip flexibility, as well as strength and aerobic fitness.

Strength and resistance training. This form of exercise, which uses equipment such as weight machines, free weights, and resistance bands or tubing, strengthens not only muscles but also your bones and your cardiovascular system. Resistance training improves muscle strength, physical functioning, and pain in 50% to 75% of people with knee osteoarthritis, according to a 2008 review article.

Tai chi. With origins in Chinese martial arts, this low-impact, slow-motion exercise also emphasizes breathing and mental focus. A number of small studies suggest tai chi helps people with different forms of arthritis, mainly by increasing flexibility and improving muscle strength in the lower body, as well as aiding gait and balance.

Also in this report:

  •     New medications
  •     Exercises for joints
  •     Assistive devices to support joints
  •     Special section: Self-care strategies for coping with arthritis

The Arthritis Special Health Report is available for $18 from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School. Order it online at or by calling 877–649–9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Raquel Schott at Raquel_Schott(at)hms(dot)harvard(dot)edu for a complimentary copy of the Special Health Report, or to receive our press releases directly.


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