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BACKGROUND: Guidelines recommend exercise as a core treatment for osteoarthritis (OA). However, it is unclear which type of exercise is most effective, leading to inconsistency between different recommendations.
OBJECTIVES: The aim of this systematic review and network meta-analysis was to investigate the relative efficacy of different exercises (aerobic, mind-body, strengthening, flexibility/skill, or mixed) for improving pain, function, performance and quality of life (QoL) for knee and hip OA at, or nearest to, 8 weeks.
METHODS: We searched nine electronic databases up until December 2017 for randomised controlled trials that compared exercise with usual care or with another exercise type. Bayesian network meta-analysis was used to estimate the relative effect size (ES) and corresponding 95% credibility interval (CrI) (PROSPERO registration: CRD42016033865).
FINDINGS: We identified and analysed 103 trials (9134 participants). Aerobic exercise was most beneficial for pain (ES 1.11; 95% CrI 0.69, 1.54) and performance (1.05; 0.63, 1.48). Mind-body exercise, which had pain benefit equivalent to that of aerobic exercise (1.11; 0.63, 1.59), was the best for function (0.81; 0.27, 1.36). Strengthening and flexibility/skill exercises improved multiple outcomes at a moderate level. Mixed exercise was the least effective for all outcomes and had significantly less pain relief than aerobic and mind-body exercises. The trend was significant for pain (p = 0.01), but not for function (p = 0.07), performance (p = 0.06) or QoL (p = 0.65).
CONCLUSION: The effect of exercise varies according to the type of exercise and target outcome. Aerobic or mind-body exercise may be the best for pain and function improvements. Strengthening and flexibility/skill exercises may be used for multiple outcomes. Mixed exercise is the least effective and the reason for this merits further investigation.