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UTSW rheumatologist says regular exercise is key to treating osteoarthritis

Low-impact exercises such as walking are among the best treatments for managing osteoarthritis.
Low-impact exercises such as walking are among the best treatments for managing osteoarthritis. (Photo Caption: Getty Images)

DALLAS – May 24, 2023 – If it hurts when you grip a cup of coffee, get up from a chair, or climb the stairs, you may have osteoarthritis, one of the most common types of arthritis. And though your achy joints seem to be telling you to take it easy, that’s exactly what you should not be doing.

Exercise is one of the best ways to keep the effects of osteoarthritis at bay, according to Kathryn Dao, M.D., Associate Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Rheumatic Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

“While the pain from osteoarthritis worsens with activity and improves with rest, exercise is still the most cost-effective treatment for it,” Dr. Dao said. “Studies have shown exercise can build cartilage, strengthen muscles, and improve joint function and bone mass. Patients who exercise also have better balance and a lower risk of falling.”

Kathryn Dao, M.D.
Kathryn Dao, M.D., is Associate Professor of Internal Medicine in the Division of Rheumatic Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Osteoarthritis, which affects an estimated 1 in 7 adults in the U.S., is caused by degenerative changes in the cartilage that connects joints and cushions the ends of bones. Most often found in hands, knees, hips, and the spine, osteoarthritis may affect other joints as well.

Symptoms include pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. Some patients may also experience tenderness near the joint as well as swelling or a grating, popping, or cracking sensation.

While osteoarthritis is common with aging, it also can result from prior sports injuries, traumas, or previous surgeries, according to Dr. Dao. Putting repetitive stress on a joint, whether through sports or a job, may increase the likelihood of osteoarthritis. Obesity is another risk factor, as excess pounds stress weight-bearing joints such as the lower back, knees, and hips. People who previously had inflammatory arthritis such as gout, rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriatic arthritis are also more prone to getting osteoarthritis, Dr. Dao said.

UT Southwestern, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight to prevent or control the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Adults are advised to get 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. Dr. Dao suggests people who are just beginning an exercise program may benefit from starting at a low intensity level for a limited amount of time and increasing gradually to moderate/high intensity levels to reach a goal of 30 minutes a day. If 30 continuous minutes of exercise proves difficult, Dr. Dao proposes breaking it down to two 15-minute sessions a day.

Choosing the right kind of exercise is just as important, Dr. Dao said. High-impact activities such as jumping, long-distance running, stair climbing, or heavy lifting of weights may cause more pain.

“Low-impact exercises such as swimming, bicycling, Pilates, yoga, and walking on level ground are better tolerated and effective in patients with moderate to severe osteoarthritis,” Dr. Dao noted. “Stretching before and after a workout also helps to loosen the muscles and lubricates the joints to prevent injury.”

For people with a significant amount of pain or weakness, Dr. Dao recommends seeing a doctor for possible referral to a physical therapist or a trainer who will develop an individualized program that would optimize a workout while minimizing the risk for injury. 

About UT Southwestern Medical Center  
UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,900 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 100,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 4 million outpatient visits a year.