Exercise 101: Finding the Right Exercise

By JoAnn Stevelos

Exercise 101: Finding the Right Exercise

It’s January, the time when everyone makes the New Year’s resolution to exercise more. Nearly half of all Americans have given considerable thought to the amount, and type, of physical activity they get, according to the 2015 Food & Health Survey  “Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health.”

But for people living with chronic pain, finding the right kind of exercise that doesn’t cause pain can be daunting. The new year is a great time to think about different ways to be active, such as learning tai chi, taking a yoga class or learning about water walking. These gentle, low-impact exercises can get you moving and also offer pain relief.

Recent studies show tai chi can reduce arthritis pain and help with energy, flexibility and balance, while yoga has been shown to ease joint pain, increase joint flexibility and improve sleep. Water walking warms the muscles, reduces inflammation and increases range of motion.

While most people develop natural movement and agility in their youth, it is never too late to try different ways to be physically active.

Tai Chi

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that can improve balance and relieve arthritis pain. The slow, graceful movements can be calming and meditative, which also can help reduce stress. While martial arts usually are very high-energy and physically demanding, the popular Sun style of tai chi is easier for people with arthritis because it is slow and gentle and includes many modifications for all fitness levels.

Tai chi is a series of movements or postures performed in a very slow and focused manner. Deep breaths are taken as each posture flows into the next without pause. During a tai chi class, your body will be in constant motion. Another benefit of tai chi is that it is inexpensive, requires no special equipment and can be done anywhere, alone or in a group. Some communities have tai chi groups that meet in public parks and perform the movements together.

Two recent studies found tai chi can reduce the pain and physical impairment of people with severe knee osteoarthritis. The first study by Paul Lam, M.D. found that women with osteoarthritis (OA) reported less joint pain and added health benefits, such as reduced stress and improvements in their general wellbeing.

A second study conducted by the Arthritis Foundation’s tai chi program showed significant benefits of tai chi for individuals with all types of arthritis, including fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Participants in the study felt less pain and were more energetic and flexible, and their ability to extend reach while maintaining balance improved.


Yoga is gaining popularity among a wide variety of people with various health conditions. The Center for Disease Control promotes yoga as a good choice of physical activity for people with arthritis because, like tai chi, yoga is a mind and body practice that includes breathing, stretching exercises and meditation. Currently, nearly 10% of the U.S. population practices yoga. Some of the more popular types of yoga are Hatha, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Iyengar and general classes offering gentle yoga.

Yoga involves moving into poses along with coordinated breathing and meditation exercises. Many yoga poses can be modified to accommodate different fitness and flexibility levels. Sometimes, they are modified with props such as wood blocks or blankets.

Recent studies of people with various types of arthritis have shown practicing yoga on a regular basis can ease joint pain, increase joint flexibility and improve sleep quality. A recent study looked at the effects of yoga on people with knee OA who participated in 90-minute, modified Iyengar yoga classes once a week for eight weeks. The participants reported less pain, increased flexibility and less joint stiffness. Many of the yoga poses were modified so participants could use chairs, blocks or other aids to help them balance.

Yoga practice also helps people learn to listen to their bodies and understand the source of their pain. In yoga, people can learn how to better communicate with their own bodies through breathing into pain sources, learning to relax muscles around pain sources and reducing stress and anxiety about exercise.

Another benefit of yoga is that it is gentle enough to do every day. There are many videos, classes and books from which you can learn poses that suit your body and fitness style. If you decide to take a class, finding the right instructor will be important. The instructor needs to understand how to modify yoga for people with chronic pain and help you develop a series of poses that are comfortable and beneficial.

Water Walking

The Arthritis Foundation recommends trying water walking, another low-impact workout that is easy on the joints. Water walking may seem like an easy thing to do; however, water provides 12 times the resistance of air, so as you walk, you strengthen and build muscle. The water’s buoyancy supports your body’s weight instead of your joints. That support decreases the pain you would feel if you were doing a weight-bearing exercise such as running.

Water walking often is held in heated pools, typically 82 to 88 degrees, which warms the muscles, reduces inflammation and increases your range of motion. In warmer weather, cooler water temperatures may motivate you to get into the pool. But your joints may feel better in warmer water.

Another great benefit of water walking is that the greater resistance created by the water requires more effort, so you will burn more calories than if you took a walk around the block.

If your community has an aquatic center, YMCA or municipal pool, look for classes designed for people with arthritis. Many types of aquatic programs exist, and usually they have some combination of walking, rest and flexibility exercises. Water walking is held in chest-deep water. You walk through the water the same way you would walk on land. You may be instructed to walk sideways or backwards to engage and tone other muscles.

Another type of water walking is held in deep water while you are supported by a flotation vest. Non-swimmers should not be deterred from trying deep water walking, because the flotation vests are designed to keep you from touching the pool floor, and you are not requred to use swim strokes or go under water. Some classes will add intensity, such as high knee walking or pumping your arms and legs at different speeds.

Tai chi, yoga and water walking are worth a try to keep you moving as you search for the right fit that will keep your joints lubricated and make movement easier. The exercises also produce endorphins, which will give you a sense of well-being along with decreased pain and can help you build the confidence to try new ways to stay healthy.

Last Reviewed 01/04/16

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JoAnn Stevelos, MS MPH, is a public health professional and health writer. She is director of research and evaluation for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation Healthy Schools Program. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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