When you’re experiencing arthritis pain, the last thing you want to do is lace up sneakers (sometimes, even the thought of tying shoelaces can be excruciating) and exercise, but you’ve heard over and over again how beneficial exercise is for arthritis.
One solution: Learn a routine of basic range-of-motion exercises you can do every day; even when you’re experiencing an arthritis flare. “A range of motion exercise means aiming to get the normal amount of movement you should have within a joint,” says Chris Gagliardi, an American Council of Exercise (ACE) certified personal trainer and ACE Resource Center manager.
People with arthritis have trouble achieving a full range of motion in certain joints because of the inflammation, pain, and stiffness they feel. But not moving the joint at all creates a vicious cycle that leads to more pain and stiffness over time. Range-of-motion exercises are ideal for arthritis patients because you can evolve them as your joints get stronger and more flexible. During range-of-motion exercises, you can gently move your joints as far as they can go. Some days, that might be hardly at all. But the more regularly you do them, the less stiff your joints will feel over time.
When and How Often to Do Range-of-Motion Exercises
It’s important to do some range-of-motion exercises every day if you have arthritis. These exercises can be a great way to help relieve some of the stiffness and pain you feel after you’re still for long periods, such as in the morning after you wake up or after you’ve been sitting at your desk at work. The following exercises are a good head-to-toe routine, but you don’t have to do every single exercise every single time. If you have a certain joint that’s in a lot of pain, you may want to avoid range-of-motion exercises for a day or two until the acute pain subsides; ask your doctor for the best way to handle your specific situation.
As a general rule, do each exercise three to 10 times, though you can certainly modify this for your needs. Make sure to move slowly and deliberately. Aim to feel a slight stretch, but don’t overdo it. If you’re doing something that causes pain, stop. Some muscle achiness or discomfort is normal, especially if you’re not used to doing these exercises, but the pain shouldn’t feel sharp or severe.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to ask your doctor about any new exercise routine before you begin to make sure it’s right for your personal needs.
A Daily Range-of-Motion Exercise Routine
Gagliardi recommends “working up the kinetic chain” — so starting from your feet and working your way up the body. Many of these are simple enough to do in bed or seated in a chair.
Toe Range-of-Motion Exercises
Toe curls: You can do this simple exercise firs thing in the morning while you’re still lying in bed. Slowly, curl all your toes in toward the sole of your foot, then extend them out toward the ceiling. You can do one foot at a time or both feet at the same time.
Ankle Range-of-Motion Exercises
Dorsiflexion: When seated, maintain good posture and keep your heels on the ground. Then try to raise your toes up toward your shins. Go slowly, trying to get your toes as high as possible while your heels are firmly planted on the ground.
Plantar Flexion: This is the opposite range of motion from dorsiflexion. When seated, maintain good posture with your feet on the floor. Then pretend as though you’re stepping on a gas pedal, pushing your toes down and bringing your heels off the ground.
Ankle Circles: While seated, move your ankle slowly in clockwise circles, as though there’s a pencil between your toes and you’re trying to write the letter “O.” Then go the opposite way and make counterclockwise circles.
Knee Range-of-Motion Exercises
Ball Kicks: You can do this either sitting or standing, depending on your comfort level. If seated, keep both feet flat on the floor. Then raise one leg out as though you were trying to kick a ball. Straighten your leg, aiming to get your foot in line with your knee so your leg makes a straight line parallel to the floor. If you have knee pain, you will not be able to get to that straight line right away; it’s something you will aim to work up to over time.
Glute Kicks: While standing, bend your knee and try to bring your heel to touch your glutes (butt muscle). You may want to lean on a sturdy countertop or desk for support.
Hip Range-of-Motion Exercises
Leg Raises: Hold on to the back of a countertop or chair for support with your right hand. Then raise your left leg slowly in front of you, aiming to get it parallel to the ground. Note: This move is challenging even for people without arthritis or hip issues; just keep your leg in a straight line and try to get it as high as you can. Do as many as you can (up to 10) and then switch to the other leg.
Standing Jacks: Standing with your right arm holding onto a chair or countertop for support, raise your left leg out to the side, as though you’re doing the bottom half of a jumping jack. Do as many as you can (up to 10) and then switch to the other leg.
Cross-Body Leg Raises: To work your hip joint in the opposite direction, stand with your right arm holding onto a chair or countertop for support. Raise your left leg forward and to the right, so it crosses your midline. Do this slowly and try to raise your leg steadily; you’ll feel a slight tension in your hip, which is normal. Do as many as you can (up to 10) and then switch to the other leg.
Shoulder Range-of-Motion Exercises
Hugs: Standing or sitting, keep your arms hanging loosely by your sides. Raise your arms forward up toward shoulder height, as though you were going to give someone a hug.
Arm Kick-Backs: Standing or sitting, keep your arms hanging loosely by your sides. Push your arms back behind you (as though you were holding ski poles) and gently squeeze your shoulder blades together. You’ll feel a little pressure in your triceps muscles.
T Raises: Standing or sitting, keep your arms hanging loosely by your sides. Raise your arms out to each side toward shoulder height, as though you were trying to turn your body into the letter T.
Arm Circles: Raising your arms out to the sides toward shoulder height, move them gently and slowly in small circles.
Elbow Range-of-Motion Exercises
Weightless Bicep Curls: Sitting or standing with your arms hanging loosely by your sides, bring the palms of your hands up toward your shoulders, then slowly and deliberately lower them back down, as though you’re doing a bicep curl without weights.
Wrist Range-of-Motion Exercises
Wrist Curls: With your hands in gentle fists, curl the palms of your hands back toward your forearms. Then go in the opposite direction. Curl your hands down, as though you’re trying to curl your knuckles toward your arms.
You can get more examples of hand exercises for arthritis here.
Subscribe to CreakyJoints
Get the latest arthritis news in your inbox. Sign up for CreakyJoints and hear about the latest research updates and medical news that could affect you.