If you have hip pain, taking it easy might seem best for relief. But although sometimes rest is necessary, being inactive for too long only causes stiffness and more pain. “Exercise is good for pain management for several reasons,” explains Keith M. Reagan, PT, ATC, a physical therapist at Achieve Physical Therapy in Tacoma, Wash. “Exercise helps maintain or improve range of motion [and] strength … as well as lubricating the tissues inside the joint with synovial fluid.” Knowing you should exercise is one thing, but knowing where to begin is another. See what the experts have to say — the pros and the cons — about five popular exercise machines and hip pain.
Before You Get Started
Before beginning any exercise program, it’s important to check with your doctor first. Hip pain is not always a clear-cut issue. “Hip pain, when presented to the doctor, is never a slam dunk,” explains Paul Sueno, MD, a physiatrist and pain medicine doctor practicing in Tacoma, Wash. “There are many structures that connect the spine to the thigh. The first step is to correctly identify the location and cause of the pain.” Only then, he says, can a doctor or physical therapist help you develop the right exercise program.
Pros: Because walking is something people do every day, Reagan said, using a treadmill for this can be a very good, functional choice for people with hip pain. “The treadmill often has a bit of spring to the belt, reducing shock on the lower extremities and back,” he said.
“Also, you can go as slow as you need with the adjustable speed. No real drawback for this purpose, and it is what I would recommend first.”
Cons: Dr. Sueno adds a take-it-easy warning for people with arthritis: “With jogging or running, the high-impact activity may not be helpful if low-impact is the goal.”
Pros: An elliptical is a low-impact exercise machine that mimics running without the high-impact and force of each step, Sueno explains. Joseph Ciotola, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, says that gentle elliptical use can be good for getting back range of motion. Make sure your doctor says that an elliptical is okay for you, though.
Cons: “The movement may not come naturally to some people,” notes Sueno. “Each person has a set stride length when walking and running, and some machines do not allow this to be changed. For those that do, the optimal stride length may not be clear.” Also, Reagan points out, the instability of the footplate could put strain on the hip.
Pros: Dr. Ciotola praises gentle cycling as “the best exercise for hip pain from arthritis,” explaining that gentle cycling allows the hips to externally rotate if needed. For those who’ve had surgery, a stationary bike is considered “good to get range of motion back, but should not be started until cleared by your doctor,” Ciotola says. “The time to return to exercise varies depending on the [surgical] approach and surgeon preference.”
Cons: Care should be taken when positioning the seat on a stationary bike. If the seat is too high or too low, existing hip pain could be aggravated, cautions Sueno.
Pros: This low-impact exercise machine works with the body’s natural walking stride.
Cons: If you haven’t used this type of machine before, it may take guidance and practice to learn to use it correctly, and the movement may not come naturally. Reagan notes that he does not typically recommend this machine because there’s a risk of too much compression, which can be strenuous on the hip and hard on the knees.
Pros: The StairMaster imposes slightly more impact on joints than walking, but this type of machine is lower impact than running or jogging, which can make it a good exercise for hip pain.
Cons: “If lowest impact is the goal, then this can stress the joints more than other machines,” notes Sueno.