The Five Best Exercises for Knee Arthritis Pain Relief

exercise for knee arthritis

Pain is one of life’s great limiters, but thankfully – when it comes to osteoarthritis in the knees – there are some simple exercises that can reduce your pain so you can concentrate on living life to its fullest.

Arthritis can be an incredibly painful and debilitating condition. For many people, living with knee arthritis means missing out on the joy of important experiences and events.

Happily, there is a simple and evidence-based way of easing the pain and getting life back on track.

A 2017 review examining the clinical effectiveness of physiotherapy exercises for knee osteoarthritis (OA) found that, “exercise represents an inexpensive, nonpharmacological, nonsurgical intervention providing beneficial effects for pain and physical function for knee OA patients”.

Physical therapy for osteoarthritis reduces pain in two ways – firstly, by helping the joint regain or retain the full range of motion, and then by strengthening the muscles around the joint to offer extra support.

Keep reading to discover the best exercise for osteoarthritis of the knees – all of which can be done quickly and easily at home.

#1 – Straight leg raises

Every osteoarthritis exercise program for the knees should include straight leg raises because they strengthen quadriceps – the muscles attached to the knee joints.

  • Start by lying down with one leg bent at the knee and the other lying straight.
  • Slowly raise the straight leg until both knees are at the same level. Make sure you keep your leg straight.
  • Slowly return your straight leg to the ground.
  • Repeat 5-10 times on each side. If you feel uncomfortable at first, start with the number of repetitions that feels comfortable and slowly work up to doing more.

#2 – Mini squats

Squats are great OA knee exercises because they build up your glutes and the muscles around your thighs, giving your knees better support.

  • Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can hold the back of a chair or a bench for extra balance if you find that helpful.
  • Slowly bend your knees until your body has lowered about 10cm. This exercise shouldn’t be painful, so if you are feeling pain, make the squat shallower until you have regained some strength and flexibility.
  • Keep your feet flat and make sure your knees don’t go past your toes.
  • Slowly tighten your buttocks as you straighten your knees.
  • Repeat 10-15 times. You can increase the number of times you do this per day as you become stronger.

#3 – Hamstring stretch

These are an effective osteoarthritis physiotherapy treatment for the knees as they help to stretch and strengthen your hamstrings, which are the muscles on the back of the legs that attach to the knees.

  • Lie flat on your back.
  • Keep one leg on the floor and lift the other as high as you comfortably can while keeping both legs as straight as possible.
  • Intertwine your hands around the back of your thigh.
  • Pull back gently, while keeping your hips on the floor, until you feel a stretch in the hamstring.
  • Count to five and release, lowering the leg slowly to the floor.
  • Repeat five times for each leg.

#4 – Mobilisation with movement

New Zealand practitioner Brian Mulligan created a new approach to physiotherapy for osteoarthritis that has been adopted around the globe. Among his many techniques is this exercise that helps regain knee movement by supporting the tibia bone in its natural rotation that takes place as the knee bends.

  • While standing, place one foot onto a chair or other raised platform with a bent knee. Make sure you are balanced and comfortable.
  • Make sure your bent leg is aligned with the centre of your knee in line with the centre of your foot.
  • Wrap your hands around your calf just below the knee.
  • Hold firmly and twist inward, toward your other leg. This is not a large movement and shouldn’t be painful.
  • Bend your knee 10 times while holding the twist in place.
  • Repeat on the other side.  

#5 – Knee extensions

These are some of the best exercises for arthritic knees because they help regain the motion of straightening the knee, something that many people begin to lose as the condition worsens.

  • Begin by sitting on a chair and repeatedly extending one leg out in front until it is as straight as you can get it.
  • Once any pain reduces and you feel comfortable, take the same leg and place the heel on a chair in front of you with the knee slightly bent.
  • Straighten your leg and, if necessary, push gently above your knee with your hands to help the leg straighten. You may feel some lowl-level pain, but this should reduce with repetitions.
  • Repeat 10-15 times with each leg.

Walking, Exercise and Mindfulness

Walking is of course a great way to keep active and physically well, but did you know it can also be utilized as a method of including mindfulness and meditation into your everyday life?

Walking is an automated movement that we practice every single day. For most of us, we put one foot in front of the other without needing to focus in on the specific action, it is completely second nature. Because of this, our thoughts can race around our minds, causing clutter and chaos.

People go on walks every single day. But often, the walk is undergone with thoughts completely elsewhere. It can feel impossible to switch off, you may be physically out in nature, but mentally, still in the office or analysing all the tasks on the to do list, still to be completed.

There are, however, ways to transform your daily walk into a more mindful or even a meditative practice. And by doing so, creating a greater inner peace and connection to your mind and body.

Here are some things you could try to begin walking more mindfully:

Make a conscious effort to notice your thoughts:

As you begin your walk take note of where your mind may be drifting off to. It could be work or family related. Acknowledge those feelings and then let them go, remind yourself that this walk is for your mind and body. This walk is not however, a time to plan this week’s shopping list or worry about when you will ever have time to go back to the dentist. Shift your mind back to the present moment and focus in on the simple act of going for a walk.

Tune into your posture:

Check in with yourself. Are you holding any tension within your body? Are your shoulders raised? Do your hips feel tight? Quite often we subconsciously hold the stress we have in our lives somewhere within our bodies. It isn’t until we take a moment to notice the stress and tension within us that we can actively release and let it go.

Take in your surroundings:

As you walk, observe the world around you. There is no need to fixate on anything, but take it all in. Notice the trees and the changing surface under your feet. What colours can you see? Are there buildings or houses? Look at the birds and notice their mannerisms. Wherever you are walking, remain in the present moment. Too often we miss all the small stuff because we aren’t allowing ourselves to be truly present. Let your life go for the time you are on your walk and let in all the things that surround you.

Feel all the senses:

Now that you are in the present moment, dive deeper. What can you smell? What can you hear? What taste is still in your mouth? Take deep breathes and feel your lungs with fresh air and as you do so, take a mental note of all the senses of your body and how they feel.

Always return to the movement:

Come back to your body and the rhythm of your steps. As you come to the end of your walk notice if you feel different, mentally, physically or maybe both. Is there a sense of lightness and clarity that you can keep with you as your day continues?

This guide is a simple start to mindful walking, there are many resources out there that you can utilise for more meditative walking guides.

Including mindful walking into your day to day life has many benefits. 30-60 minutes, 3-5 times a week can have a profound, lasting impact on your physical and mental health.

Mindful walking can reduce risks of health implications such as illness, obesity and heart disease whilst simultaneously alleviating anxiety, stress and creating a greater sense of self. Life today is busy and noisy; our minds rarely get the chance to be still. Regular practice of walking integrated with meditation can ease tension and bring much needed calm into our lives.

Benefits of Pilates

Joseph Pilates at age 82

The Pilates method of exercise was established in the 1920s by German fitness guru Joseph Pilates (1881-1967). Pilates developed sequences of movement that focused on mind and muscle connection, as well as the underlying theory that long-lasting health and wellbeing is within our own power. Joseph Pilates was a testament to his method, remaining limber and strong until he passed in 1967.

Joseph Pilates at age 82

“If your spine is stiff at 30, you are old. If it is flexible at 60, you are young.”
-Joseph Pilates

The Pilates method is now recognised all over the world and is practiced by many people seeking to improve their physical and mental health, and as a result improve their quality of life.

So, what is it exactly that makes Pilates the perfect exercise technique to practice as you age?

Low Impact Exercise for Anti-Aging

A traditional Pilates workout involves strengthening the whole body whilst remaining low impact. This is perfect as you age, taking the pressure off the back and joints. Pilates aims to strengthen the small stabilising muscles of the spine and joints and all of this is done through gentle, functional movement. Much of the aging population suffer from conditions such as Osteoarthritis, joint pain and Osteoporosis. Many exercises in Pilates are performed lying or sitting and can easily be altered for all different levels of fitness. For example, someone suffering from Osteoporosis would benefit from a Reformer Pilates class. This is because the reformer equipment adds resistance to the exercises using springs, this added resistance is imperative to new bone formation. Pilates is a safe way for people to continue or start exercising as they age and can often assist with rehabilitation and treatment of these conditions.

Pilates Improves Coordination and Balance

Loss of balance and coordination is extremely common with aging, the Pilates method aims to combat this. Every exercise in Pilates begins with the activation of the core muscles, starting with the centre of the body and expanding outwards from there, positively effecting balance in day to day life. Awareness of our own centre of gravity and our core muscles that keep us from losing balance is important and practicing Pilates can help to keep these things in check as we get older. In terms of coordination, Pilates exercises require a great deal of concentration to synchronize the limbs, correct eyeline and breathing pattern within each movement, which with practice, vastly improves coordination.

Benefits of Pilates for Memory and the Mind

The number one Pilates principle is concentration. A Pilates workout requires complete concentration on what the body is doing, correct posture, breathing and various movement patterns. Exercise that challenges the brain and the body simultaneously is optimal for improving memory and alertness as we age. Instructors of Pilates also encourage their students to pay close attention to how their body is feeling with each movement in coordination with their breath, making the practice a mindful way to exercise. Additionally, the inhale breath through the nose and exhale breath through the mouth are purposely coordinated with the movement to enhance correct activation of the working muscles during each exercise. For example, during an abdominal curl, the breathing pattern is to exhale lift and curl up and inhale lower. This is important because exhaling slowly with force through the mouth as you lift heightens the activation of the Transverse Abdominus and Obliques, exactly the muscles we are aiming to work during an abdominal curl exercise. As well as better muscle activation, the Pilates breathing technique ensures safety throughout the exercise. By focusing on the specific breathing, clients will avoid holding their breath during the workout which places an increased strain on the cardiovascular system.

Pilates Improves Posture

Awareness of posture is an integral part of the Pilates method. Bad posture over time can result in back pain, the deterioration of joints, headaches and many other complications. It is common for people to tense and strain the shoulders and neck unintentionally whilst exercising. Pilates instructors, however, are trained to notice the posture of their clients within a class and will constantly be cuing to keep the shoulders down and back as they teach. Each Pilates class strengthens the stabilising muscles of the body and the deep abdominals whilst focusing on posture. This repetitive practice translates to how clients then carry themselves outside of class, with the strength and muscle memory to stand tall in good posture. By practicing Pilates, it is possible to maintain good, strong posture with age.

Pilates can absolutely help manage and deter the effects of aging. This list is just the beginning of reasons to consider taking up the practice, start today and feel the many benefits for yourself.

Written by Jayde Ormsby
Qualified Pilates Instructor