Effect of exercise intensity on osteoarthritis

Effect of exercise intensity on osteoarthritis

Mark H. Ebell

Clinical Question

Does the intensity of therapeutic exercise for osteoarthritis matter?

Evidence-Based Answer

Although land-based exercise improves physical function, there is no evidence that high-intensity cycling offers benefits over low-intensity cycling for patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Practice Pointers

An earlier Cochrane review (1) (last updated in 2001) of 17 studies with 2,562 participants found that group and individual exercise were effective in reducing pain (standardized mean difference [SMD], 0.39; 95 percent confidence interval [CI], 0.30 to 0.47) and improving function (SMD 0.31; 95 percent CI, 0.23 to 0.39).

Brosseau and colleagues reviewed the literature to determine whether the intensity of exercise had an effect on pain reduction. The authors identified only three studies in which adults with osteoarthritis who were assigned to different intensities of exercise were followed. One study did not report statistical data, and one had a dropout rate of more than 20 percent, leaving only a single, randomized, moderate-quality study (2) for review.

Adults with osteoarthritis of the knee were assigned to low-intensity (40 percent of heart rate reserve) or high-intensity (70 percent of heart rate reserve) stationary cycling. They had three one-hour sessions per week for 10 weeks. At the end of the study period, improvement in pain and functional capacity was similar between the groups.

Brosseau L, et al. Intensity of exercise for the treatment of osteoarthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2003;3:CD004259.


(1.) Fransen M, McConnell S, Bell M. Exercise for osteoarthritis of the hip or knee. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2003;3:CD004286.

(2.) Mangione KK, McCully K, Gloviak A, Lefebvre I, Hofmann M, Craik R. The effects of high-intensity and low-intensity cycle ergometry in older adults with knee osteoarthritis. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 1999;54:M184-90.

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