Anecdotal evidence over the years has shown exercise — even the most basic small moves — helps. Not until the past couple of decades, however, has exercise been examined scientifically as a treatment for osteoarthritis, with most of the focus on hips and knees. It is now generally accepted that exercise regimens that focus on cardiovascular conditioning and lower extremity strength training help manage the painful and often disabling symptoms.
“Teasing apart the roles of injury versus exercise, especially participation in sports, it appears that the increased risk of knee [osteoarthritis] is not based on increased physical activity, but on increased risk of knee injury of particular sports, such as football,” says Lissa Fahlman, lead epidemiologist of the Arthritis Research Institute of America. It has been gathering osteoarthritis data on thousands of people since 1988 in the Clearwater Osteoarthritis longitudinal study.
“Similar to how weight-bearing exercise builds stronger bones, weight-bearing exercise also builds stronger knee cartilage, decreasing the chances of injury,” Fahlman says. “Other indirect effects include preventing being overweight, another important risk factor for knee [osteoarthritis] and preventing metabolic syndrome and diabetes,” both which are thought to possibly play a metabolic role in osteoarthritis.