The key is to strengthen the muscles that support these major joints
Because your joints are no stronger than the muscles and ligaments that support them, it is especially important if you have arthritis that you augment your range-of-motion exercises with targeted exercise intended to strengthen muscles. Strength training has been shown specifically to decrease pain and increase range of motion in people with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis.
The following exercises strengthen the muscles that support your knees. They are especially necessary because muscle atrophy makes those joints unstable, throwing off your balance and inviting additional pain when you exercise. (Actually, this is true of all joints.)
To Strengthen Your Knees, Strengthen Your Quadriceps Muscles
"Knee strengthening" is really quadriceps strengthening. (Your quadriceps, or quads for short, is a large group of muscles that run down the front of your thigh.) Of all your joints, the knee is most vulnerable to lateral (side-to-side) strain, so keep the range of motion in the longitudinal plane, especially in the early stages of your workouts.
- Knee extensions. Sit in a chair with your back straight, your butt tucked into the back of the chair, and your feet flat on the floor. Place a towel under your knees for support, and slowly lift one foot so that your entire leg is horizontal to the floor. Pause, holding the position for a count of three, then slowly lower your foot to the starting position. Repeat with your other leg. Notice which leg feels stronger. You may notice the effort most on top of your upper thighs in your quadriceps. This is good, because you know you will be strengthening this area with progressive effort. Work up to eight to 10 knee extensions per leg.
- Knee extensions with weights. For best results from your knee extensions, add a set of ankle weights, or suspend weights from your ankle using a purse or pouch with a strap. Start with two to five pounds. Sit on a high table or workbench, with your legs dangling. Lift up one weighted foot, extending your knee as far as you can, and hold steady for a few seconds. Then slowly lower the leg until your knee is again at 90-degree angle. Do the same with your other foot. Repeat 10–15 times. Over time, progressively increase both the weight and number of reps.
Exercise to Stretch the Quadriceps Muscle
Standing on your left leg, reach back and grasp your right foot behind you with your left hand. You can balance against a wall with your free hand if you need to as you pull gently upward on your right foot. You'll feel the stretch on the front of your right thigh. Hold the position for 10 seconds, switch legs, and repeat.
To top off your program, low-impact aerobics will give your heart and cardiovascular system the energy and stamina it needs to keep your joints humming and your whole body healthy. A brisk walk (up to 20–30 minutes each day) will do the trick. Avoid exercise that pounds the joints, such as jogging on pavement. Swimming, water aerobics, rowing, and cycling are all excellent exercises for your joints, as are tai chi and yoga.