Bethany Aitken, Clinical Services Manager for MSK at AXA Health

Being active with arthritis


15 September 2023

Arthritis is a common condition that affects many people in the UK and around the world. Despite the discomfort and pain that arthritis can cause, embracing an active lifestyle and finding suitable exercises can be a great way to help manage arthritis and even elevate some symptoms. 

Bethany Aitken, MSK Clinical Services Manager at AXA Health takes a closer look at some of the exercises that can be most beneficial, and why. 

What is arthritis?

In the UK, it is thought that there are approximately 10 million people that have arthritis1, affecting people of all ages. However, some forms of arthritis are most common in older people. The word arthritis is used to describe pain, swelling and stiffness in a joint, but there isn’t just one type.

Types of arthritis

There are over 100 different types of arthritis, although the two most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis2


Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease, which accounts for the majority of those diagnosed with arthritis with around eight million people in the UK3

It typically occurs in those over 40 years of age. Injury, overuse injuries, obesity, age, gender, race and family history have all been suggested as possible risk factors for osteoarthritis. This form of arthritis occurs when the cartilage, which acts as a cushion between two bones within a joint, starts to break down4.

Read more on what osteoarthritis is.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This affects approximately 400,000 people in the UK5, and is an auto-immune disease where the body’s defence system mistakenly attacks the lining of the joint, causing pain and inflammation. 

Over time, this can interfere with the normal function of the joint but may also affect other areas of the body. This form of arthritis can affect anyone at any age but is more common in those over the age of 406.

Arthritis and exercise

Though there are medical arthritis treatments available, there are things you can do for yourself to help relieve arthritis symptoms, and boost your overall wellbeing. 

One of the most effective ways to do this is to exercise more. There is evidence to show that by increasing your muscle strength and flexibility even by a small degree is likely result in a noticeable decrease in your symptoms, in particular pain levels7. Exercise might not always sound appealing when you have pain/stiffness in your joints, but it has been shown to reduce pain and alleviate arthritis symptoms8

Generally, being inactive will only weaken your muscles, which can lead to lack of support in your joints, causing increased tightness and elevated pain.

Being active doesn’t only help strengthen the muscles that support your joints, but can also increase their flexibility and stability. 

Stepping up your activity levels also helps to maintain a healthy body weight, which can help reduce unnecessary strain on damaged joints, as well as improving sleep, which supports body repair. 

As you can see, there any many proven benefits of being active, but what type of exercise is safe and beneficial?

What exercise should you do?

There may be some forms of exercise that are more suitable than others, depending on which joints are affected. As for anyone looking to start a new exercise programme, it’s important to choose activities, exercises or sports that you enjoy and are able to do consistently. Ideally these would include a combination of different types of activity, which can benefit your body in different ways. 

For example, in accordance to the NHS exercise guidelines9, a week might look like this:

  • Boost your cardiovascular health by raising your heart and breathing rate doing some form of moderate aerobic activity for at least 150 minutes over the course of the week.
  • Help to build muscle and bone strength through some form of resistance exercise twice a week, 
  • Include aspects of flexibility training for improved range of motion and joint mobility.

1. Low-impact aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise increases overall fitness and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases. It also helps us maintain a healthy body weight and can give you more energy and stamina. It is recommended to aim for low impact exercises that don’t put unnecessary strain on joints. These exercises typically include:

Moderate aerobic activities such as these should be performed three to five days per week.

2. Muscle strengthening exercises

In addition to low impact aerobic exercise, you could also try some muscle strengthening work, which will help to support and protect your joints. Try to perform large muscle group exercises using added resistance, such as your own body weight, resistance bands, machines or free weights such as dumbbells, two to three days per week.

3. Stretching

Many people with arthritis can have stiff joints, so including some simple stretching exercises helps improve range of motion, as well as helping to minimise the risk of injury before and after exercise. 

To stretch safely and effectively, slowly move into a stretch position to the point where you feel a stretch surrounding the joint, but not pain. Hold the stretch for 5-10 seconds and repeat several times. Once flexibility improves, stretches can be held for longer.

Top tips to help you up your activity levels

  • Start off slowly – this is especially important if you’re new to exercise or if you experience sporadic pain and/or discomfort due to your arthritis. Build the intensity and/or duration of activity gradually, to get used to the activity you’re doing
  • Listen to your body – if you feel sudden pain/discomfort when exercising, stop and seek professional guidance from your GP or qualified sports professional. It may be that you just need to lower the intensity and work out what’s right for your body.
  • Warm up and cool down – this will help to minimise injury and prepare your body for exercise. The Arthritis Foundation has many videos that will help you form a complete warm-up and cool down. 
  • If you’re new to exercising or struggling to stick to your new regime, try roping in a friend or joining a class.

Exercise can form a part of a valuable self-help strategy that you can fit into your routine. Following these tips should improve your symptoms and help you live a fuller life.

Next steps

You can find lots of information, tips and inspiration to get you moving more and help keep you motivated in our exercise and fitness pages.

Learn more about arthritis and other conditions affecting your muscles, bones and joints and how to manage and treat your symptoms in our musculoskeletal centre.

Or if you have a specific question or concern about any aspect of your or your family’s health, why not try our Ask the Expert service, for members. This free information service allows you to ask the team of friendly and experienced nurses, midwives and pharmacists about any health concerns you may have. Simply submit your question online and we’ll get back to you with an answer as soon as we can.

And remember if you have health cover with AXA Health, you can speak to a qualified physiotherapist for help with any musculoskeletal problems as soon as symptoms occur, and without the need for a GP referral, through our Working Body service.


  1. Arthritis – NHS Inform
  2. Different types of Arthritis – Arthritis Foundation
  3. How many people with Osteoarthritis in UK? – NHS Inform
  4. Osteoarthritis - NHS
  5. How many people with Rheumatoid Arthritis UK? - NHS Inform
  6. Rheumatoid Arthritis - NHS
  7. Strength training for arthritis – Harvard Health Publishing
  8. Living with Arthritis - NHS
  9. Physical activity guidelines - NHS

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