Even if you have arthritis, it’s entirely possible to make the leap from couch potato to avid exerciser – and well worth the effort.

A 2008 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that sedentary individuals with arthritis (both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis) who exercised twice a week for an hour experienced significant declines in pain and fatigue and improved their ability to manage their arthritis. In addition, a 2006 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal concluded that exercise markedly lowered the risk of a number of health problems, including heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, depression and osteoporosis.

Don’t let inexperience, inertia or arthritis hold you back. “Contrary to popular belief, there is never an age, skill level or stage of arthritis so bad that you can't do something constructive for your mobility,” says Vonda Wright, MD, assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Sports Medicine and author of Fitness After 40 (AMACOM, 2009).

Doreen M. Stiskal, PhD, chair of the department of physical therapy at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, agrees. “Most people with arthritis don’t exercise because they’re in pain – not realizing that exercise is a powerful and effective pain reliever. It eases inflammation, improves energy and promotes the flow of feel-good, pain-relieving chemicals like endorphins.”

So what are you waiting for? Here’s your comprehensive guide on how to start – and stick with – an exercise program:

Get Ready…

Before you lace up your sneakers, follow these steps to make sure you safely jump-start your new routine.

Check in with your doctor. Let your rheumatologist and general practitioner know that you’re going to start exercising. She may advise against specific activities because of your medical history, says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

Ask your doctor for specific suggestions, including how long and hard you should exercise,” says Bryant. “If she’s unable to do so, seek the help of a physical therapist or certified professional trainer who has extensive experience working with people with arthritis.”