Bodyweight Training and Arthritis: A Guide to Modified Basic Fitness Skills

Bodyweight Training and Arthritis: A Guide to Modified Basic Fitness Skills

Arthritis can make exercise challenging, but regular activity is crucial for managing joint pain and stiffness. With some modifications, people with arthritis can safely perform bodyweight training - no gym or equipment required! This guide covers smart exercise progressions to build strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness.

How Does Arthritis Affect Exercise Ability?

Arthritis causes joint inflammation, pain, and restricted mobility. This impacts exercise in several ways:

  • Pain - Joints hurt more during movement, making exercise uncomfortable.
  • Stiffness - Swelling and stiffness in joints reduces mobility and flexibility.
  • Weakness - Inflammation around joints can lead to muscle weakness and atrophy.
  • Fatigue - Chronic inflammation causes generalized fatigue and low endurance.
  • Instability - Damaged joint structures increase risk of injury or instability.

While these factors present challenges, exercise remains crucial for managing arthritis symptoms long-term. The key is tailoring activity to accommodate joint limitations.

Benefits of Exercise with Arthritis

Physical activity, even modified, provides many benefits:

  • Reduces pain - Moving improves joint lubrication. Exercise releases endorphins to relieve pain.
  • Decreases stiffness - Light activity loosens stiff joints. Stretching increases flexibility.
  • Builds strength - Stronger muscles better support affected joints. Taking weight off joints also helps.
  • Improves cardiopulmonary function - Aerobic activity improves heart and lung health.
  • Aids weight management - Exercise helps regulate weight to reduce joint load.
  • Improves balance - Better balance reduces risk of falls and subsequent injury.
  • Elevates mood - Physical activity releases feel-good endorphins to boost mood.

Following an exercise program within your capabilities can maximize function and quality of life.

Exercise Guidelines with Arthritis

Those with arthritis should follow these general exercise guidelines:

  • Start slowly - Allow time to build up endurance and find tolerable activities.
  • Warm up thoroughly - Spend at least 10 minutes warming muscles before exercise.
  • Modify intensity - Exercise at an easy-moderate exertion level. Avoid high impact.
  • Adjust movements - Avoid positions that cause pain. Use smaller ranges of motion.
  • Listen to your body - Stop if intense pain occurs. Some soreness and fatigue is expected.
  • Allow rest days - Joints require recovery time. Avoid exercise every single day.
  • Supplement with other activity - Balance exercises with lower-impact options like biking, swimming, or yoga.

Staying within your personal capabilities is key. You can always start small and build up over time.

Bodyweight Training Modifications for Arthritis

Bodyweight training uses your own weight for resistance. This allows joint-friendly modifications to common strength moves:


  • Stand with feet hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out.
  • Push hips back, bend knees and lower halfway or less into a shallow squat.
  • Hold briefly then press back up to start. Repeat 10 times.
  • Use chair for support or counterbalance as needed.


  • Place hands shoulder-width apart on wall or edge of counter.
  • Walk feet back to lean body forward at incline. Draw abs in.
  • Bend elbows, lowering chest towards wall.
  • Press back to start. Repeat 8-10 times. Increase difficulty by lowering incline over time.


  • Rest forearms on floor, elbows under shoulders.
  • Engage core, draw navel towards spine.
  • Hold for 10-30 seconds. Gradually increase hold time.
  • Reduce load by starting on knees versus toes.


  • Lie on back, bend knees with feet flat on floor about hip-width apart.
  • Squeeze glutes and press hips up towards ceiling. Pause briefly.
  • Lower hips back down without fully resting on floor to keep tension.
  • Repeat sequence 8-12 times. Can also do single-leg bridges.

With some joint-protecting adjustments, bodyweight training can strengthen the body from head to toe. Over time, gradually increase the number of sets and repetitions or movement range as tolerated.

Low-Impact Cardio Exercise Options

Aerobic exercise improves heart health and aids arthritis pain management. Recommended low-impact cardio options:


  • Start with short 10 minute walks and gradually increase duration.
  • Walk on soft surfaces like grass, dirt trails, or tracks when possible.
  • Use trekking poles to reduce lower body joint loading.

Stationary Cycling

  • Adjust seat height for a slight bend in knee at bottom of pedal stroke.
  • Include intervals of different resistances or speeds.
  • Recumbent bikes allow reclined posture to take pressure off knees or back.

Water Exercise/Swimming

  • Water aerobics take weight off joints for greater mobility.
  • Swimming works all muscles and increases endurance.
  • Warm water also helps relax muscles.


  • Adjust incline and resistance for lower intensity intervals.
  • Grab handlebars to remove weight from lower body as needed.
  • Elliptical motion reduces joint impact.

Incorporate 20-60 minutes of gentle cardio most days of the week as able. Listen to your body and take breaks as needed.

Stretching and Flexibility Exercises

Gentle stretching improves flexibility and range of motion limited by arthritis:

Neck Stretches

  • Slowly tilt head to each side, holding for 10 seconds. Repeat 2-3 times per side.
  • Roll neck in slow circles 10 times clockwise and 10 times counterclockwise.

Shoulder Stretches

  • Clasp hands together above head, straighten arms up. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Bring right arm across chest, use left hand to gently pull elbow inward. Hold for 10 seconds. Switch sides. Repeat 2-3 times each side.

Upper Back Stretch

  • Interlace fingers, turn palms up above head, straighten arms. Lean slightly sideways. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat other side.

Lower Back Stretch

  • Lie on back, bring knees into chest, wrap arms around shins.
  • Gently rock knees side to side massaging lower spine.

Hamstring Stretch

  • Sitting, extend right leg straight out. Lean forward with flat back until stretch felt in back of thigh. Hold 10-30 seconds. Switch legs.

Hip Flexor Stretch

  • From lunge position, shift hips forward until stretch felt across front of rear hip. Hold for 10-30 seconds. Repeat other side. Use wall for balance assistance.

Aim to maintain flexibility in all body areas. Move carefully within your range of motion - avoid bouncing or overstretching. Yoga, Pilates, and foam rolling also improve mobility.

Lifestyle Tips To Support Exercise Goals

Complement your workouts with these lifestyle habits:

  • Focus on sleep quality - Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night to manage fatigue.
  • Reduce stress - Try meditation, deep breathing, or journaling to lower stress and anxiety.
  • Listen to your body - Take rest days when needed. Don't push through severe pain.
  • Watch your diet - Eat anti-inflammatory foods and stay hydrated. Avoid excess sodium and saturated fats.
  • Practice posture - Stand and sit tall to strengthen muscles and reduce strain on joints.
  • Monitor medications - Discuss exercise effects on dosages or pain levels with your doctor.
  • Consider supplements - Glucosamine, turmeric, fish oil, and magnesium support joint health. Consult your physician first.

A comprehensive approach combining exercise with nutrition, rest, stress management, posture, and medication monitoring provides the best results long-term. Be patient with yourself throughout the process.

Sample 2 Week Training Schedule

This balanced sample program offers activity variety:

Week 1

Monday: Upper body bodyweight training - push ups, lateral raises

Tuesday: Lower body bodyweight training - squats, bridges

Wednesday: Rest day

Thursday: 30 minute stationary bike

Friday: 15 minute walk + stretching

Saturday: Swimming or water aerobics

Sunday: Rest

Week 2

Monday: Total body bodyweight circuit

Tuesday: Yoga or Pilates

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: 15 minute walk + stretching

Friday: Elliptical interval training

Saturday: Upper body bodyweight training

Sunday: Rest

Adjust intensity and duration based on your current fitness level. Take additional rest days as needed. Prioritize consistency over time to see results.

Final Tips for Safe, Effective Training

Follow these final exercise tips and precautions:

  • Discuss exercise plans with your doctor - Especially if newly diagnosed.
  • Warm up and cool down thoroughly after each workout.
  • Wear supportive, cushioned shoes for cardio exercise and weight training.
  • Pay attention to posture and joint alignment with all movements.
  • Avoid excessive repetitive motions or overuse of the same joint.
  • Apply ice after exercise to swollen or painful joints.
  • Stop activity if dizzy, excessively short of breath, or feeling unwell.
  • Keep a symptom journal - Note effects of different activities.
  • Work with a physical therapist or trainer knowledgeable about arthritis.
  • Make exercise a habit by scheduling workouts. Enlist a friend for accountability.

Smart programming, lifestyle habits, and listening to your body allows those with arthritis to safely enjoy the multitude of physical and mental benefits from regular exercise. Be patient with yourself and modify as needed - over time, you will find types of movement that work for your body!

Exercise Recommendations from Leading Health Authorities

Major health organizations provide evidence-based guidelines on physical activity for managing arthritis symptoms and progression:

The Arthritis Foundation recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, plus 2-3 strength training sessions, for arthritis pain relief. Water exercise and gentle stretching are also beneficial. [1]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise building up to the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic activity weekly in increments as tolerated. This improves cardiovascular health and aids weight management. [2]

The American College of Rheumatology states that an exercise program combining aerobics, muscle strengthening, stretching and balance training improves function and delays disability. Work with a therapist to create an individualized arthritis exercise regimen. [3]

The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases emphasizes starting exercise slowly and gradually increasing duration. Avoid overuse of affected joints. [4]

Aquatic exercises like swimming and water aerobics put less stress on joints while improving strength and flexibility. The Arthritis Foundation Aquatics Program provides resources. [5]

The Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center recommends a mix of low-impact cardio, stretching, strengthening and balance exercises. Apply ice afterwards to ease swelling. [6]

Following evidence-based exercise guidelines from leading arthritis authorities allows you to tailor activity for optimal safety and results. Consult your physician before starting any new exercise program.


[1] Arthritis Foundation:

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

[3] American College of Rheumatology:

[4] National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases:

[5] Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program:

[6] Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center:

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