Range of Motion Exercises for the Treatment of Arthritis

by Dr. David Williams
Filed Under: Arthritis, Bone & Joint Health
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

These 12 exercises help keep joints mobile and reduce arthritic pain

As anyone with arthritis knows, joint health is very much a "use it or lose it" proposition. That's why it's essential that you exercise your joints every day, taking each one through its complete range of motion. 

One of the best routines for restoring or maintaining joint mobility was developed by the Russian heart surgeon Dr. Nikolay Amosov. In the mid-1950s, Dr. Amosov developed the physical training system he called his "1,000 movements." At the time, his program involved 10 exercises—each of which were repeated 100 times. (The program was later refined to 12 exercises, but the number of repetitions remained at 1,000 per day.)

Here are directions for each of the 12 activities in the current 1,000 Movements program. (The instructions have been adapted with permission from Super Joints by my friend Pavel Tsatsouline, © 2001 Dragon Door Publications). The ideal time to exercise arthritic joints is in the morning because it helps get rid of the stiffness and pain that are often felt when you first get out of bed.

WATCH: More Exercises That Help Improve Total Body Mobility

Squats

The standard exercise (where you squat with your weight on the balls of your feet and your knees sticking out in front) can be very hard on your knees. For a safer and more comfortable version, stand in a doorway and hold onto the doorframe at about hip height, then sit back as if you were sitting in a chair. If you’re doing it correctly, your shins should stay nearly vertical. Once down and back up counts as one repetition. Work toward 100 of these.

Back to Top

Side Bends

Stand with your arms at your sides, palms facing inward. Move your trunk sideways and slide your palm down your leg. The other palm will slide up on that side of your body. Straighten your body and then bend it sideways the other way. When you’ve straightened your body again, you will have completed two repetitions. Make sure to not twist your trunk during this exercise (that will come later). Once to the left and once to the right counts as two repetitions. Work toward 100 of these.

Back to Top

Push-Ups

You wouldn't think there was much "technique" involved in such a simple exercise, but there are several points to keep in mind. Keep your weight at the back of your hands near your wrists rather than on your fingertips. If this hurts your wrists, look for "pushup handles" at sporting goods stores, or hold onto dumbbells (hex-shaped ones so they won’t roll away).

  • Protect your back by keeping your bottom tucked in to keep it from sagging.
  • Keep your hands at least shoulder-width apart to help protect your shoulders.
  • Breathe in synchronization with your movement. Inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up. If you don't breathe during movement, you can cause a spike in your blood pressure.

Once down and up counts as one repetition. Work toward 50 of these. Push-ups are also one of the three exercises I believe everyone should do.

Back to Top

Forward Bends

Stand upright, then bend over and try to touch the floor with your fingers (or even your palms). Exhale in on the way down, and inhale into your stomach on the way up. Sort of push off your thighs with your belly as you return to a standing position. If you do it right, the intra-abdominal pressure when rising on inhalation will straighten out your spine like a hydraulic jack—with minimal back stress. (Remember to bend your knees each time before returning to the upright position.) Tuck your chin in as you fold over, and tilt your head back as you stand up.

If you aren't sure how to use your diaphragm, or if you have a health condition that prohibits the standing toe touch, practice the exercise sitting on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Reach forward on a sigh, sit up as you inhale. Once down and up counts as one repetition. Work toward 100 of these.

Back to Top

Straight Arm Raises

Simply raise your arms to the front, all the way up. (If you try this out to the side, you'll notice that you can’t get your arms all the way up. A part of your shoulder blade, called the acromion, gets in the way.) Both arms up and back down counts as one repetition. Work toward 100 of these.

Back to Top

Trunk Twists

Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold your arms in front of you at shoulder height with your palms facing outward and your fingers clasped. Keep your hips still and twist your torso clockwise, then counterclockwise, as far as you can. Be sure your arms and head move with your torso. This is mostly a stretching exercise, so don't "bounce" your trunk at the end of the movement or you could injure your back. Instead, push as far as you can in one direction before moving back. Once to the left and once to the right counts as two repetitions. Work toward 50 of these. Trunk twists are another one of the three exercises I believe everyone should do.

Back to Top

Sit-Ups

The old style of sit-ups that you learned in gym class will hurt your back over time. Instead, do abdominal crunches—where you only come partway up—and work directly on the floor or drape yourself over an exercise ball. The benefit of crunches is that you’ll naturally sort of roll yourself forward rather than trying to lift your entire upper body using your lower back.

Inhale as you come up and exhale as you go back—the opposite way from what you would expect. Exhaling as you lie back will relax your muscles and improve your range of motion. Once up and back down counts as one repetition. Work toward 100 of these.

Back to Top

One-Legged Jumps

Be sure to keep your knee bent as you hop on one leg, and flex the knee as you come down to absorb your weight. Do 5–10 repetitions on one leg, then switch to the other leg. Many people find it easier to do this exercise while holding on to some sturdy object for support.

You don't need to actually lift yourself off the ground with each jump, although you may find that over time you’ll naturally end up going higher and higher. Work toward 50 of these on each leg.

Back to Top

Bringing the Elbows Back

Stand with your hands on your hips, palms facing in. Use the muscles in your upper back and biceps to push your elbows as far back as you can. Work toward 100 of these.

Back to Top

Leg Raises

This is a preliminary exercise to the Birch Tree. Lie on your back in bed, and hold onto the headboard. Keep your legs reasonably straight, and raise them as far toward your head as you can. Your weight should remain on your shoulders and upper back, not your neck. If you prefer to do this exercise on a floor or mat, you can keep your balance by putting your hands down at your sides and pressing your palms into the floor. Once up and back down counts as one repetition. Work toward 100 of these.

Back to Top

Birch Tree

The "birch tree" is a Russian name for the yoga sarvangasana pose or the shoulder stand. In this exercise, you will point your legs toward the ceiling. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides. Lift your legs and place your hands in the small of your back. Prop your body on your forearms and point your legs and toes straight up. Your weight should be on your shoulders and upper back, rather than your neck. (Note that you only need to do one repetition of this exercise, held for a count of 100. You may want to use a friend as a spotter the first few times you try this. Women should avoid it altogether during menstruation or pregnancy.)

Back to Top

Sucking in the Stomach

Pull in all the muscles from below your ribcage down to your pubic bone—as though you were trying to squeeze through a tight space. Hold for a count of three and push out. If you exhale as you’re tightening and inhale as you push out, you’ll naturally develop a proper diaphragmatic breathing pattern. Once in and out counts as one repetition. Work toward 50 of these.

Back to Top

Additional Considerations

Obviously, the exercises and repetitions you can perform will depend largely on your age and ability. If you're not in the best shape, then start with 10 repetitions of each exercise a day and begin to add another 5–10 each week until you reach 1,000 total movements.

As you increase the number of repetitions, make sure the movements are done at a fairly steady and rapid pace so that you're getting a little cardiovascular benefit as well. However, don't sacrifice form for speed. Again, the primary purpose of these exercises is to achieve full range of motion for each joint. You should be able to complete the entire 1,000 movements in about 25–45 minutes.

More Dr. Williams Advice on Arthritis

Enjoy What You've Just Read?

Get it delivered to your inbox! Signup for E-News and you'll get great content like you've just read along with other great tips and guides from Dr. Williams!