8 Unique Water Exercises for Arthritis Relief

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There is a common misconception that water exercise is only suitable for senior citizens with joint pain. However, Julie Mulcahy, a physical therapist at McLaren Health Management Group, a Michigan-based organization that offers home health care, emphasizes that water exercises for arthritis is beneficial for people of all ages, abilities, and disabilities.

Aquatic exercise programs are highly customisable and can accommodate individuals with varying fitness needs and abilities. Whether you prefer a gentle range-of-motion and floating routine or a high-level intensity workout, there are many options available, such as water walking, water aerobics, even water Zumba.

Recent research has indicated that water exercise is a safe and effective form of exercise for individuals with arthritis. One study published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation demonstrated that women with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who engaged in water-based exercises three times a week for sixteen weeks experienced significant improvements in disease activity, pain, and functional capacity compared to those who did land-based exercises. Furthermore, a recent Cochrane Review consisting of 13 trials involving 1,190 patients with knee or hip osteoarthritis (OA) concluded that aquatic exercise could potentially improve pain and function in these individuals.

Why water exercises are good for your joints

Experts at the American Physical Therapy Association describe the pool as “nature’s body weight support system,” capable of unloading nearly 90 percent of a person’s body weight. This buoyancy helps reduce joint strain and makes movement in the water much easier. According to Dr. Mulcahy, a physical therapist who works with Physera, a platform for app-based physical therapy, this joint-friendly environment enables individuals with arthritis to perform movements that might otherwise be too painful on land. By doing so, water exercise can improve joint strength and flexibility. For example, individuals with knee osteoarthritis (OA) may struggle with squats on land, but find them more manageable in the water.

Water exercises puts less stress on your joints

According to Lauren Shroyer, MS, senior director of product development at the American Council on Exercise, exercising in water eliminates the impact stress caused by ground reaction force. When compared to stepping on dry land, the impact of stepping on the pool floor is significantly reduced. This is especially beneficial for individuals with joint inflammation or pain during weight-bearing exercises. As Shroyer explains, water exercise allows people to reap the benefits of movement without the negative consequences of impact on the joints.

Water exercises puts more resistance on your muscles

Walking from one side of the pool to the other requires more effort in water compared to outside of it. The reason for this is that water provides significantly greater resistance, up to 12 times more, according to Dr. Mulcahy. This resistance to your movements not only helps to strengthen your muscles but also increases the number of calories burned, resulting in faster weight loss. The level of resistance increases according to the speed of your movements.

Water exercises for arthritis boosts cardiovascular fitness

According to Dr. Mulcahy, exercising in water engages your entire body in various directions and encourages fluid movements rather than sudden, jarring ones. Water exercises also enables you to work at a higher intensity level than you would be able to endure on land, leading to better mobility and increased cardiovascular endurance. She further notes that individuals with chronic joint conditions often report feeling liberated from their disability while in the water.

Are water exercises for arthritis the same as swimming laps?

Not really. According to Dr. Mulcahy, one major difference between water exercises for arthritis and lap swimming is the water temperature. Water exercises for arthritis are typically conducted in hotter water, ranging from 92°f (33°C)to 98°f (36°C)degrees, which is more soothing for arthritic joints and meant for low-intensity exercise. In contrast, lap swimming is a moderate intensity exercise that requires a cooler pool, with a water temperature between 83°f (28°C)and 88°f (31°C) degrees. Swimming laps in water that is too warm, such as 90°f degrees (32°C) or greater, can lead to exhaustion and overheating.

Despite the difference in water temperature, lap swimming is also an excellent exercise for people with arthritis. It has minimal impact on joints, stretches muscles, and enhances cardiovascular fitness.

Precautions to keep in mind before you exercise in the water

Including regular exercise into your arthritis treatment plan is crucial, regardless of whether you have osteoarthritis or an autoimmune, inflammatory form like rheumatoid arthritis. Your doctor will likely recommend it, but it’s important to consult with them or a physical therapist before attempting any water exercise program to ensure it’s appropriate for your condition.

Here are some additional tips to consider before starting your water exercises for arthritis:

Consider the equipment you will be using for your workout. For example, wearing water shoes can provide you with extra traction on the pool floor. If you plan on exercising in deeper water, using a Styrofoam noodle or a flotation vest can help keep you afloat. Additionally, you can use Styrofoam weights or a kickboard to increase resistance during your workout.

Stay hydrated. Since sweating may not be as noticeable during pool exercises, it’s crucial to stay adequately hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

If you experience any pain, stop immediately. According to Shroyer, it’s important to “listen to the pain.” This means taking a break from exercising when you begin to feel joint discomfort or aching. If you experience any new joint pain, it’s crucial to stop immediately. Discuss with your doctor what level of pain is normal and when it’s a sign of a more serious problem.

Water exercises for arthritis relief

Water exercises for arthritis are commonly offered at aquatic centre, YMCAs, and community pools. Some recommended water exercises include those from Shroyer at ACE and Dr. Mulcahy, as well as ones found on various websites. You can check some of them in this video and in this video. Check them here:

Water walking

  • Stand in water that reaches your waist or chest.
  • Walk forward for 10 to 20 steps, then walk backward.
  • Repeat the forward and backward walking.
  • For more resistance, increase your walking speed.

Forward Lunge

  • Stand in water that is waist- or chest-high. If needed, stand near a pool wall for support.
  • Take an oversized lunge step in a forward direction, being careful not to let your forward knee extend past your toes.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat the lunge with the other leg.


  • Stand in water that is waist- or chest-high, facing the pool wall.
  • Take sideways steps while keeping your body and toes facing the wall.
  • Take 10 to 20 steps in one direction and then return by taking sideways steps in the opposite direction.
  • Repeat the exercise by taking sideways steps in the other direction.

Hip Kickers

  • Stand in waist- or chest-high water, with the pool wall on your right side for support.
  • Kick your left leg forward while keeping your knee straight, then return to the starting position.
  • Kick your left leg out to the side, then return to the starting position.
  • Kick your left leg behind you, then return to the starting position.
  • Turn so the pool wall is on your left side and repeat the same movements with your right leg.

Jumping Jacks

  • Stand in chest-high water with your feet together and hands at your side.
  • Jump your feet out to a straddle position while bringing your hands up to the top of the water level, keeping them submerged in the water.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat the jump as quickly as is comfortable.
  • For added resistance, hold foam water dumbbells. However, you may need to slow down the motion when using water dumbbells.

Hacky Sack

  • Stand in chest-high water.
  • Lift your right leg with your knee bent and hip rotated open, and tap the inside of your ankle with your left hand.
  • Lower your leg to the starting position and repeat the movement with the opposite side.
  • Alternate tapping each ankle with the opposite hand as quickly as is comfortable.

Frog Jumps

Stand in chest-high water.
Keeping your body submerged in the water, quickly pull your knees up towards your armpits while widening your knees and bringing your heels towards your groin.
Reach your hands down to touch your feet as they come up to about the level of your hips.
Return to the starting position and repeat the exercise as quickly as is comfortable.

Squat Jumps

  • Stand in waist- or chest-high water.
  • Hinge your hips and bend your knees, lowering your body into a squat position while reaching your arms forward.
  • Jump up, coming out of the water, and draw your arms to your sides.
  • Land on the balls of your feet and lower your heels while bending your knees and hips into a squat landing.
  • Repeat the exercise as quickly as is comfortable.

How to get started

To begin your water exercises for arthritis, it’s important to first check with your doctor to ensure it’s safe for you and to inquire about any exercises or movements you should avoid.

Before diving in, start with a light 5- to 10-minute walk and a few gentle stretches to warm up your body. Be sure to perform each movement completely and gently to avoid putting any extra pressure on your joints.

As mentioned earlier, if any exercise causes pain or discomfort, or if you feel lightheaded or out of breath, stop immediately and take a break.

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