arthritis-friendly elliptical exercise

Elliptical Machines Go Easy on Your Joints

Keep your body moving if you have arthritis. Exercise can reduce joint pain and stiffness as well as improve strength and balance.

But what type of exercise is best? An elliptical trainer is a good option. This minimal weight-bearing stationary exercise machine mimics walking with a gliding motion.

“The elliptical machine can be a beneficial form of exercise for people with knee and hip arthritis because it provides both strengthening and cardiovascular benefits while exerting less force on the joints,” says Maura Daly Iversen, DPT, MPH, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association and Associate Dean of Clinical Education, Rehabilitation, and New Initiatives at Northeastern University in Boston.

Low Impact Exercise

Normally, when you walk, jog or run, one foot comes off the ground. On the elliptical, however, both feet remain in contact with the surface. Thus, there is less pounding on the knee and the knee remains in a relatively stable position.

“The nice fluid motion of the elliptical reduces stress on the hips and knees,” says Iversen. “Treadmills, on the other hand, can be tough on the joints because as you are lifting one leg off the ground at a time, all your body weight is absorbed by the leg in contact with the ground.”

Benefits of the Elliptical

But does less stress equal less benefit? Not according to research in healthy individuals. “Studies show that the energy expenditure resulting from running on a treadmill with no incline is relatively the same as the energy expenditure at the pace on an elliptical, even though people perceive the workout differently,” says Iversen.

Elliptical machines also have speed and resistance settings that allow you to customize your workout. Forward motions strengthen the quads and calves while reverse-stride settings (a backward motion) work the hamstrings and back of your thighs.

The elliptical can fall short in comparison to the treadmill on weight-bearing exercise. If the elliptical is a staple of your routine, Iversen recommends supplementing with strengthening and flexibility exercises to build bone health and increase range of motion.

“Knee and hip osteoarthritis range in severity from mild disease to bone-on-bone disease,” she says. “I recommend that anyone with arthritis see a physical therapist – these movement experts can help you identify exactly what exercise is best for you and how to perform it safely for your stage of disease.”

Tips for Using an Elliptical

Follow these tips for a safe and effective elliptical workout:

  • Warm up. Don’t jump right into a workout first thing in the morning or immediately after a few hours of computer work. After prolonged periods of laying or sitting, loosen up stiff joints with simple stretches. Walk a lap around the block or gym.
  • Wear the right footwear. Pain or stiffness can affect your gait and posture. Sneakers with a strong arch support or an orthotic insert can help keep the hips and knees in proper alignment.
  • Check your posture. Don’t slouch over when you start to fatigue. Keep your body straight and shoulders back.
  • Use the handlebars. “The handles can be helpful for balance and even for offloading the lower extremity if painful.  An important caution, however, is to avoid excessive stress on the hands/wrists and upper body,” advises Michelle Dolphin, DPT Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Education at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
  • Start slow and listen to your body. Exercise is your friend, but it can also be your foe if you push yourself too hard or too fast. “Prior to starting any new exercise, a health clearance should be obtained,” says “Typically, a new exercise may start with 5 to 10 minutes and progress to 20 to 30 minutes several days per week.”

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