By one estimate, 60 percent of adults who suffer from some form of arthritis are completely sedentary or don’t exercise enough to reap any benefits. Avoiding exercise because you have arthritis is one of the worst things you can do. 

Exercise increases energy, improves mood and reduces pain, and that’s just for starters, says Chad Deal, MD, a rheumatologist and head of the Center for Osteoporosis and Metabolic Bone Disease at the Cleveland Clinic.

If you don’t exercise because you’re worried it will worsen your symptoms, know that research shows the opposite: 30 minutes a day of moderate activity, such as walking or swimming, can both ease your symptoms and help you lose weight.

Stretch It Out
Morning stiffness is a hallmark of osteoarthritis. But you can’t stay in bed all day! Try this stretch, recommended by the Arthritis Foundation. Get on all fours, align your knees under your hips and plant your hands firmly onto the floor directly under your shoulders. Exhale as you arch your back and look toward your navel while pushing against the floor. Hold for a second or two. Inhale as you extend your chin toward the ceiling and lower your abdomen toward the floor, pulling your shoulder blades down your back. Repeat five times slowly, using your breath to flow through the movement.

MORE: Stretching Exercises

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Take a bath before bedtime. It may help you get a good night’s sleep, which can restore your energy and rest your joints to reduce swelling and pain.

Get Moving with Tai Chi
A 2009 study suggests that tai chi, a traditional Chinese discipline that involves gentle, slow, repetitive movements, relieves pain and stiffness in people who suffer from osteoarthritis. Tai chi exercises, which focus on relaxation and coordination, are designed to bring about a state of mental calm, but they can also improve flexibility and muscle function. Usually performed in a group, tai chi can also be practiced individually, which differs from traditional exercise therapy approaches in clinics.

Become a Thigh Master
Knees are most commonly affected by osteoarthritis, and women who have strong quadriceps (thigh) muscles cut their risk of developing arthritis in the knees in half, according to researchers at the Clinical Osteoarthritis Research Program at the University of Iowa. The researchers already knew that quadriceps strength was associated with better ability to walk and to get up from a chair, but this study suggests that strong quadriceps may protect against the breakdown of knee cartilage, at least for women. (Sorry, guys: The study did not find a similar protective effect in men.) Exercises such as lunges and squats are great for building thigh strength. 

Say No to Stilettos (and Other Not-So-Sensible Shoes)
Women who wear even semi-high heels — as low as two inches — increase the force on their knees because their weight shifts forward, according to researchers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Wearing shoes that are too narrow can cause bunions, a potentially painful disorder that happens when big toes are constantly pushed inward. The cartilage in the toe joints eventually wears away, leading to arthritis.

QUIZ: Are You Getting Enough Exercise?

Listen Up!
If your knees snap, crackle and pop during your workouts, or even when you’re walking down the street, it’s probably not arthritis. Some researchers think the noise comes from gas bubbles that form in the fluid in joints — it’s just like when you crack your knuckles. Other researchers say the noise is caused by a piece of loose cartilage settling when you move. Either way, it’s likely harmless. But if you hear a creaking or grating sound, or if the noise is accompanied by pain, it may mean that the cartilage has worn away and the roughened areas in the joint are rubbing together. Try the stretches recommended above, and see your health care provider about the best treatment options based on your age, weight and general health.

by Dana Sullivan