Exercising with joint pain | Expert exercise advice for painful joints

Joint pain is one of the most common reasons for avoiding active movement and exercise. Stiff joints, a poor range of motion, and mobility issues all make accessing and enjoying traditional sports and exercise plans difficult. Below, Senior Rehabilitation Specialist Jon Taberner explains how best to safely exercise if you suffer with neck, shoulder, back, or knee pain.

Chronic pain and exercise

Chronic joint pain is defined as joint pain that has been present for longer than 6 months.

If this sounds like you, know that exercise is essential for helping to strengthen and stabilise the joint. Whether you’re exercising with shoulder pain or unstable knees, exercise is a must because it helps build the muscles and ligaments in the area up to take the strain off the joint. This is what prevents issues arising again in the future.

With chronic joint pain, inactivity can mean these muscles and ligaments get weaker. With time, this means the joint becomes less stable, causing the bones involved to move about inside their socket. This is known as wear and tear.

Should I stop exercising if I have joint pain?

If you’ve recently injured a joint, exercise may have to stop until you’ve seen your GP or local healthcare professional for diagnosis or treatment.

It’s always better to wait until you’ve been checked over before exercising again. The older you get, the more risky exercising on potentially damaged joints and muscles becomes.

Which exercises are best for joint pain?

Knowing the right exercises to do is one the most important parts of any rehabilitation plan. If you don’t know what exercises to do, you risk reinjuring yourself and causing more damage.

Generally, the best exercises for joint pain are low impact cardiovascular exercises like brisk walking, cycling, and swimming.

If you go to the gym, useful machines include the elliptical or cross trainer, the rowing machine, and cable flyes.

Exercises you can do at home

For these exercises, 10 to 15 reps of each movement once a day, two times per week is a great place to start.

Standing/seated exercises

If you need support, you can use a worktop or the back of a chair to support yourself whilst performing the exercises below.

  • Sit to stands
  • Bodyweight squats
  • Seated leg extensions
  • Standing leg curls
  • Seated leg curls, pushing your feet into the floor to add resistance
  • Standing hip abductions
  • Open the gate/Close the gate
  • Wall angels for shoulder and neck issues
  • Upright rows

Lying down exercises

For these, you can use your bed if you don’t have a suitable carpeted area.

  • Glute bridges
  • Knee drops
  • Childs pose
  • Straight leg raises
  • Side Lying hip abductions
  • Towel assisted quad (upper thigh) stretch

If you prefer exercise videos to follow along with, click either of the links below for more great joint pain exercises you can do at home:

Exercises to avoid

Some exercises can be harmful when done frequently over a long period of time. These are usually exercises classed as high impact, where you go from not applying any weight through a joint, to a sudden increase of weight.

Running, sprinting, jumping, and any contact sports or high-impact exercises should be reduced or avoided altogether. This is because the wear and tear involved can be problematic for individuals already experiencing joint pain.

Exercises such as jumping jacks and burpees, are high-impact movements, performing these over time can increase the wear and tear in our joints.

  • Jumping jacks
  • Strenuous stretching
  • Running
  • Twisting movements
  • Exercises that involve leaning
  • Sprinting
  • Squatting heavy weight

Can I run with joint pain?

Running is another high impact that should be approached with care if you suffer with joint pain.

Running does help strengthen the tendons and ligaments in the knee, but the impact on our knees and hips over time can begin to wear down these joints.

If you’re concerned, consider limiting your mileage or lowering the intensity of your runs to assess the impact this change has. If you have to avoid running, focus your attention on other cardio training methods like cycling, rowing, or swimming.

Can I lift weights with joint pain?

There is no real hard answer to this question. Everyone experiences joint pain differently, and the answer will be different if the pain is sudden onset or chronic.

The best course of action is to seek the advice of a professional physiotherapist. If you can’t do that, then assessing the severity and intensity of your pain is a good place to start.

If you want to continue lifting, you may want to consider the following:

  • Avoid compromising positions: remove lifts that just don’t feel right from your lifting regime
  • Reducing weight: lowering the amount of weight you lift is a must if you suffer from joint pain
  • Form over intensity: focus on your form and take things slow to avoid sudden, lurching movements
  • Emphasise the warm up: find a warm up that gently works the unique joints involved
  • Always cool down: taking time to cool down after an exercise can lower your risk of injury
  • Learn to rest: none of us like to take time off. Unfortunately, when pain is involved we have to learn to. If we don’t, we risk causing more damage further down the line.

Yoga for joint pain

Yoga is a great low-impact exercise that has helped thousands of people live with, manage, and recover from joint pain. Yoga emphasises carefully considered movements that help you gently build muscle and confidence between poses.

Take a look and follow along with one of our favourite classes led by Nuffield Yoga Instructor Michaela, below:

My symptoms get worse…

After exercise

It’s normal to feel some degree of aches and tiredness after exercising. This even includes some level of mild discomfort in your joints.

This is because exercise puts our muscles under stress. To avoid overtraining or injuring yourself further, put a limit on the number of repetitions and sets you perform for each exercise.

During exercise

If your symptoms get worse during exercise, the best thing to do is stop and rest. Take a few days off and see if this helps relieve the symptoms you’re experiencing. If the pain doesn’t go away with rest, contact your GP or book an appointment with a physiotherapist.

Remember, if you experience any sudden pain like a painful jolt through a muscle or a stabbing sensation, stop exercising immediately.

If your symptoms disappear with rest, great. Return to exercise in a reduced capacity initially. Consider starting out with fewer reps and more rest between each exercise until you feel back to your best.

When to see a professional

If you’re in pain and you’re not sure where to start, see a physiotherapist.

Making changes to your body can result in making things worse down the road. A physiotherapist will assess your condition and provide the expert advice, information, and exercises you need to start your recovery journey.

Our free programme

Nuffield Health launched the Joint Pain Programme in 2018.

This free 6-month programme pairs you with a Recovery Specialist who will give you all the information and exercises you need to regain mobility, flexibility, and strength.

The best part? It works. Since 2018, we’ve helped tens of thousands of people live with and manage chronic pain.

Last updated Thursday 26 October 2023

First published on Thursday 26 October 2023