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Osteoarthritis Knee Exercises

While osteoarthritis in the knees can be a very debilitating condition, it is important to remember that there are plenty of activities you can do to improve the condition and fend off its progression. At first, exercising may seem like an impossible task, but as strength and fitness returns, most people recognise the difference that regular physical activity makes.

As long as you exercise gently and at your own pace, there is very little risk of aggravating the condition further and at the same time, there is so much to gain.

It is also worth noting that exercise should not be considered in isolation, take a look at your diet also.

The essential 5 exercise areas

For people with osteoarthritis, of all varieties, five kinds of exercise are considered crucial and these focus on:

  • Flexibility & Stretching
  • Aerobic Exercises
  • Aqua Aerobics
  • Walking
  • Muscle Strengthening

Making sure you do all five can help maintain and improve movement and function, while decreasing pain and swelling.

Flexibility & Stretching

Also known as range of motion exercises, these include gentle stretching exercises, which move the affected joint through a full range of motion. While knee flexibility is predominantly seen as the stretching and bending of the knee, its connection to the hip and ankle also play a role.

Exercises that concentrate on moving the hips and feet in smooth circular shapes are key here and need to be done every day to have a positive effect.

Frontside Thigh

The frontside thigh stretch is designed to stretch out your thigh, helping to increase your overall flexibility and range of motion. This can be done either standing up (as in the video) or lying down as per the bullet points below which can include a resistance band:

  • Original position: On the side, with your lower leg at 90° angle to your hip and knee joint. The upper leg is stretched.
  • Flex your lower leg to the back and pull with your hand or an arm elongation (e.g. towel) until you feel a nice stretch on the frontside of your thigh.
  • Keep this position for approximately 5 minutes, then relax.
  • Repeat 5-10 times.

Backside Thigh

  • Original position: Dorsal, hip angle is 90°. To support the position of the thigh use your hands or an arm extension like a towel or a gymnastics band.
  • Extend the flexed leg until you feel a distinct but not painful stretch on the backside of your thigh.
  • Keep this position for approximately 5 seconds and retreat slowly to the original position.
  • Repeat 5-10 times.

Exercise Playlists

Want something a little longer and more varied?

Check out this playlist from Össur Academy which offers a range of stretching and muscle strengthening exercises using a variety of apparatus from chairs to exercise balls.

Aerobic Exercises

If you have symptoms of arthritis, aerobic exercise is important for many reasons.

  1. Conditioning gives you the benefit of reducing fatigue, which means more stamina during the day
  2. Reduces the likelihood of weight gain that can further exasperate the symptoms of painful and swollen knees
  3. Releases endorphins and other hormones, which make you feel better throughout the say, and also help you sleep better at night (good night's sleep can make all the difference for the next day)

Aqua Aerobics

In these classes, an instructor stands on the side of the pool and leads a class, usually to music. Participants are submerged up to their chests in water and are asked to copy the instructor's movements.

The effect of being in the water while exercising is highly beneficial to anyone living with painful or swollen joints. As the water is able to take a portion of the weight of your body, the demand on joints is reduced. This allows you to move in ways, which would normally be too painful. This buoyancy also allows you to straighten out joints, not just your knees, but your hips and lower back too, which has a knock-on positive effect on your knee joints.


Walking is also a very good all over conditioning exercise. It improves circulation, fights off heart disease, lowers blood pressure and strengthens the heart and lungs. In cases of osteoarthritis knee pain, walking obviously impacts the range of motion and flexibility of the affected joint. It also includes an element of endurance, as walkers can slowly increase the lengths of their walks as they become fitter.

The important thing to remember with walking and osteoarthritis of the knee or any medical condition is to always walk with someone or to let someone know where you're going and when you will be back. If you have weakness associated with your condition, consider using a medical support or brace until your stability returns.

Take a look at Walk 4 Life to find a local walk, a local group or even take up a challenge.

Muscle Strengthening Exercises

Stronger muscles are they key to supporting painful and damaged joints. The stronger your surrounding muscles, the less pressure and demand there is on your joints. Of course, it is difficult to strengthen muscles around painful or swollen joints, but there are ways to do so.


Bridging is a closed chain weight-bearing exercise which works to increase muscular strength of the hip extenders and promotes overall stability. It is often prescribed for patients with back pain, and increases the activities of core stabilisation muscles such as the internal oblique, external oblique and erector spinae muscles.

  • Original position: Dorsal position with legs bent at 90°. Ankles and knee joints are hip-width apart. Arms are positioned next to the body.
  • Build-up tension by increasing pressure under your feet.
  • Increase tension until your behind is lifted up.
  • Lift your pelvis 10-20 times so that your upper body builds a straight line with your thighs.
  • Take care to keep the distance between your ankles/knee joints at hip width.

Skier Seat

The skier seat routine is designed to build up the quads which can work to help counteract any instability experienced in the knee joint. It is recommended for those suffering from osteoarthritis or who are ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) deficient to offer the additional stability required when active.

  • Original position: Stand with your back to the wall (best to choose a smooth surface which will allow you to slide up and down easily)
  • Slide down with your back to the wall until your thighs only have a light downward slope.
  • Your feet should be at some distance to the wall so you can place them directly under your bent knees.
  • Keep this position form a maximum of 20 seconds and repeat 5 times.
  • Don't slide further down than putting your thighs parallel to the floor.

Leg Raise

A straight leg raise is used as part of your rehabilitation from knee, hip and thigh injuries and works to not only help with your range of motion but helping to focus on your quads and abdominal muscles.

  • Original position: Dorsal, with gymnastic band wrapped around the toes and attached with the hand to the floor on the same side.
  • The leg is raised up straight with slight orientation to the inside and released carefully back to the original position.
  • Repeat 10-20 times per side.
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