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8 Gentle Exercises for Seniors With Arthritis

14 minute readLast updated December 7, 2023
fact checkedon December 7, 2023
Written by Jordan Kimbrell
Medically reviewed by Amanda Lundberg, RN, family medicine expertAmanda Lundberg is a registered nurse with over 10 years of experience in clinical settings, working extensively with seniors and focusing on wellness and preventative care.
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It may be hard for a senior to motivate themselves to exercise when they’re experiencing an arthritis flare-up. However, exercise may be the best way to improve overall activity level and manage pain, according to the Arthritis Foundation. While arthritis comes in many different forms, they all share some common features, such as inflammation, swelling, and pain around joints. Most forms of arthritis are chronic, meaning it’s a condition that will be around for a long period of time. Read on to learn more about the most common types of arthritis, as well as the best exercises for arthritis that reduce pain without causing more stress to sensitive joints.

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Understanding common types of arthritis

More than 100 different conditions could fall under the umbrella term arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but a few are more common than others:

  • Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis among seniors, and it’s a leading cause of disability in seniors if unmanaged. Appearing most frequently in the hands, hips, and knees, osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage supporting the joints weakens and wears away. Weight loss is especially helpful in managing this type of arthritis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), another common type of arthritis, is an autoimmune and inflammatory disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells in the body by mistake, according to the CDC. While there’s no cure, RA symptoms can be managed.
  • Gout, unlike most other types of arthritis, is generally acute, meaning a flare can come on suddenly and the condition has long periods of remission. Some people can go months or years between flares, according to the CDC. Caused by an excess of uric acid in the body, gout normally only affects one joint at a time.

Despite their differences, most arthritis types have similar treatments. In general, rest, exercise, a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods, and taking the appropriate medications as prescribed by your doctor are good ways to manage symptoms. Exercise, in particular, can be beneficial for arthritis because it helps maintain joint mobility, reduce stiffness, and strengthens muscles around the joints, which can reduce the burden on them.

Arthritis requires a medical diagnosis based on a combination of laboratory tests, X-rays, medical history, and physical exams. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of pain or swelling around one or multiple joints, consider talking to your doctor. Seniors on arthritis medications should also talk to their doctor about the best time to exercise in relation to medication (e.g., when pain relief is maximal).

Before you begin a new arthritis workout

Keep in mind that exercises recommendations may vary depending on the type of arthritis you have, which is one of the main reasons why all seniors should talk to their doctor before they begin a new arthritis workout. In addition to offering valuable advice about appropriate exercises for your specific health conditions, your doctor may also want to test your cardiovascular health before you begin exercise routines. They may also suggest that you work with a physical therapist to learn the best exercises for arthritis.

Safety is essential when it comes to arthritis workouts. Work with your doctors to avoid exercises that cause joint pain or exacerbate symptoms, and be sure to discuss pacing and not overdoing exercises, especially for beginners or during flare-ups.

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When you begin exercising, spend several minutes warming up whichever part of your body you’re going to work — and be sure to exercise your left and right sides equally. Don’t forget to take necessary precautions, such as checking any workout equipment for wear, or clearing an appropriate amount of space to prevent falls or other injuries while exercising.

If at any time during exercise you feel pain, you should stop. A physical therapist can help seniors who are struggling to exercise without experiencing pain.

8 gentle exercises for seniors with arthritis

Along with taking the right medicine and properly resting your joints, exercise is a good way to stay fit, keep muscles strong, and control arthritis symptoms. Daily exercise — such as walking or swimming — decreases pain, helps keep joints moving, and makes muscles around the joints stronger. Weight loss has other benefits, too: Losing just 1 pound will decrease the amount of pressure on your joints by a total of 4 pounds, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Here are eight gentle arthritis exercises for seniors that reduce arthritis pain. And, remember: Balance your workouts by completing each exercise on both sides of your body.

Arthritis in the hands or wrists

1. Fist close

  • Maintaining finger flexibility is key for seniors with arthritis in the hands. This exercise can help.
  • Simply ball your hand into a fist, doing so slowly if it’s challenging. Hold your hand in a fist for five seconds or as long as you can. Release, and repeat 10 times.

2. Wrist bends

  • Some seniors with arthritis find that their wrists get stuck or can’t bend as far as they need them to. This exercise can help when practiced regularly.
  • Place your elbow on a tabletop with your hand pointing to the ceiling. Slowly push back your open palm with your other hand. Don’t push so hard that you feel pain, but do try to go as far as you can. Hold for five seconds, and release. Now, push your hand forward, hold for five seconds, and release. Then do the other hand, and repeat.

3. Make an “O”

  • This last exercise may be a challenge if you have very serious arthritis, but it can also be very beneficial.
  • Attempt to make an “O” shape with your hand. Hold your fingers together, bend your thumb, and gently try to touch your thumb to your index finger. You’ll get better at this exercise with time. If you can, touch all of your fingers to your thumb to help with dexterity.

Arthritis in the hips or knees

4. Sitting stretch

  • This exercise will gently move your hips and, as a bonus, will stretch your leg muscles.
  • Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. If you’re not able to sit on the floor, this can be done in a chair or on the bed. Slowly bend forward at the hips and reach for your feet with your hands. Most likely, you won’t be able to reach very far at first, so don’t push yourself. Over time you will become more flexible.

5. Step-ups

  • Gently bending your knee can help relieve pain.
  • You don’t need special equipment to do this exercise. Instead, find the nearest staircase. Hold on to the banister for balance, if necessary, and step one leg onto the bottom step, then the other. Move backward off the step, and repeat.

Arthritis in the ankles or feet

6. Ankle circles

  • This exercise moves your ankle through its full range of motion, stretching your ankle joints and relieving stress and tension.
  • If you need additional support for balance, feel free to hold onto the side of a chair. Stand up and raise one foot off the floor. Point your toe, and draw a circle by only moving your ankle. Draw five circles, then change direction. Be sure to follow the same steps with the other ankle, too.

Arthritis in multiple areas

7. Swimming

  • Exercise can be especially challenging when you have arthritis in multiple joints. One way to relieve pain and move all of these suffering joints is by swimming. Water reduces the weight on all of your joints, and so you can move them more extensively with less pain.
  • If you can no longer swim or don’t enjoy it, you can join water aerobics classes, where you spend most of the time standing on the bottom of the pool. Classes are a great option if you want companionship and extra safety while exercising.

8. Yoga or tai chi

  • Yoga exercises for seniors with arthritis are all about carefully stretching and strengthening muscles.
  • Tai chi focuses on gentle movements while you’re breathing deeply and practicing meditation.
  • Both exercises offer the benefit of improving flexibility and balance, which can be reduced by arthritis.
  • Search for local classes or, if you prefer to work out on your own, check out the instructional DVDs from the Arthritis Foundation.

These exercises for older adults with arthritis may be challenging. However, seniors with arthritis have a lot to gain from trying a few gentle exercises each day. Work with your doctor to decide which exercises are the best for your condition.

If you’re having trouble completing these exercises on your own and mobility is hindering your ability to comfortably complete everyday tasks, consider reaching out to one of A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors to learn more about your options.

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Arthritis Foundation. 8 Natural Therapies for Arthritis Pain.

Arthritis Foundation. 14 Ways to Work Out With Arthritis.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, November 8). Physical Activity for Arthritis.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, January 10). Arthritis Types.

National Institute on Aging at National Institute of Health. (2017, May 1). Osteoarthritis.


Meet the Author
Jordan Kimbrell

Jordan Kimbrell is a former copy editor at A Place For Mom, where she worked with writers to produce articles and web pages that answer the most pressing questions related to senior living. With over a decade of experience as an editor and writer, Jordan holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Truman State University and Kansas State University, respectively.

Edited by

Danny Szlauderbach

Reviewed by

Amanda Lundberg, RN, family medicine expert

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