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Aquatic Exercise and Arthritis

Arthritis, which literally means “joint inflammation,” affects 43 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Consisting of more than 100 different forms, each form shares general characteristics of joint pain, stiffness and potential swelling. Aquatic exercise, in particular, is recommended for people with arthritis as a safe and effective means to exercise, improve endurance, mobility and strength, enhance well-being and reduce physical limitations.

Arthritis primarily consists of two types: rheumatoid and osteoarthritis . Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition that results from wear and tear on joints and breakdown of cartilage that covers the ends of bones. Typical symptoms of osteoarthritis include pain and stiffness that can be relieved by movement.

In contrast, rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disease that affects the entire body. Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include joint pain and inflammation, especially in the hands and feet, and leads to joint deformity over time. The challenge for people with rheumatoid arthritis is that inflammation prevents normal use of joints and limits activities. This reduced activity leads to loss of strength, endurance and mobility. Over time, muscles and ligaments become so weak that people experience further loss of function. Exercise provides a safe, effective and much needed intervention to prevent a continuous cycle of functional loss.

Exercise Program Guidelines

Aquatic exercise principles for people with arthritis include the following:

Recommended Conditioning Exercises

Water Walking

Side Stepping

Recommended Strengthening Exercises


Leg Curls

Recommended Range of Motion Exercises

All range of motion exercises should be performed in a deliberate and controlled manner. Joints should be submerged either by standing in appropriate water depth or by bending the knees in a lunge or squat stance to lower joints into the water.

Shoulder Rolls

Big Hugs

Breaststroke Arms

Goals of Aquatic Exercises for People with Arthritis


Mental and Emotional:

Source: Arthritis Foundation YMCA Aquatic Program

Water Temperature for Arthritis Classes

Warmer water temperatures encourage greater muscle elasticity and enhance range of motion. Ideal water temperatures for arthritis classes range from 83-88 degrees Fahrenheit (28 - 31 degrees Celsius). Some participants enjoy “hot” water classes in pools as warm as 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot water pools are only suitable for range of motion exercises and are not recommended for higher levels of activity.

If participants prefer more warmth, recommend that they wear thermal pool attire that cover arms, legs and the neck area and to wear exercise mitts. Remind participants to move continuously while in the water to improve thermal regulation.