For people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), exercise can be hugely beneficial for relieving pain and joint stiffness. Exercises can include walking, yoga, Pilates, water exercises, and more.

People with RA who exercise may experience less pain than those who do not. Exercise can reduce painful symptoms, improve joint function and flexibility, increase range of motion, and boost mood.

It is best to seek medical advice before starting any exercise program and work with a doctor and a physical therapist to develop a tailored exercise plan.

The following types of exercise may help relieve the pain, joint stiffness, swelling, and other symptoms that RA can cause:

1. Stretching

According to the Arthritis Foundation, stretching can help improve flexibility, reduce stiffness, and increase range of motion.

The ideal stretching routine will differ for each person and depend on which joints are affected and their symptoms. Typically, stretches involve moving the joints of the knees, hands, and elbows gently and slowly.

A typical stretching routine may consist of the following:

  • Warming up by walking on the spot or pumping the arms while sitting or standing for 3–5 minutes.
  • Holding each stretch for 20–30 seconds before releasing it.
  • Repeating each stretch 2–3 times. Using a yoga strap might help people maintain proper form while stretching.

Learn more about stretching routines.

2. Walking

Walking is a low impact exercise that can help with aerobic conditioning, heart and joint health, and mood.

It is essential to wear proper shoes and stay hydrated, even if the walking is not strenuous. Start walking slowly initially and then increase the pace when possible.

Learn more about the benefits of walking.

3. Flowing movements, such as tai chi and yoga

Both tai chi and yoga combine deep breathing, flowing movements, gentle poses, and meditation. They increase flexibility, balance, and range of motion while also reducing stress.

It is possible to find free online videos or apps for tai chi or yoga workouts, including some yoga workouts specifically for people with RA. A person should always talk with their doctor before starting a yoga or tai chi practice.

Learn more about yoga.

4. Pilates

Pilates is a low impact activity that can increase flexibility for enhanced joint health.

Doing Pilates poses that activate the core muscles and emphasize movements that help with stability can be helpful. Pilates can be good for overall movement patterns, similar to tai chi and yoga.

If possible, people new to Pilates should begin slowly and seek guidance from a certified trainer.

Learn how to do more exercises for the core.

5. Water exercises

Water helps support body weight by minimizing gravity, which means that water exercises do not impact heavily on the joints.

Swimming, water aerobics, and other gentle water exercises can increase flexibility, range of motion, strength, and aerobic conditioning. People often refer to these as forms of hydrotherapy. They can also reduce joint stress and stiffness.

Learn more about hydrotherapy.

6. Cycling

As RA increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, keeping the heart as healthy as possible is vital. Cycling can help improve cardiovascular function.

Riding a stationary bike can be a safe way to get the joints moving and improve cardiovascular fitness. A benefit of a stationary bike is that a person can exercise in a controlled environment and under supervision if necessary. A person can also ride their bike outdoors to get fresh air.

Discover more about the benefits of cycling.

7. Strength training

Strengthening the muscles around the affected joints can help increase strength while reducing pain and other RA symptoms.

Using a resistance band is a way to challenge the body and build muscle over time. A physical therapist who works with people with RA should be able to offer guidance on suitable exercises.

Learn more about strength training.

8. Hand exercises

RA can sometimes lead to limited use of the hands and wrists. A person with RA may lose grip strength or find that they are dropping things.

Bending the wrists up and down, slowly curling the fingers, spreading the fingers wide on a table, and squeezing a stress ball can all help increase strength and flexibility in the hands.

Discover 8 hand exercises for arthritis relief.

9. Gardening and other activities

Low stress activities, such as light gardening, can benefit a person with RA. A person can avoid overstraining by avoiding bending and twisting in ways that can aggravate the lower back. A gardener should hinge at the hips when working in the garden.

Learn how RA affects the hips.

The tips below may improve safety and comfort when exercising with RA:

  • Be consistent: It is important to exercise consistently to achieve meaningful results. A person with RA will benefit from consistent and lifelong aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises.
  • Seek variety: Doing a variety of exercises and mixing up the daily routine can help people avoid overworking one set of muscles or particular joints.
  • Listen to the body: It is important for people with RA to remain as physically active as possible. However, it is equally crucial to avoid discomfort or injuries. People can reduce exercise intensity on days when symptoms are more severe.
  • Use the right equipment: Padded yoga mats, supportive footwear and clothing, and resistance bands can help people exercise more comfortably.
  • Work with a physical therapist: Working with a physical therapist specializing in RA can help develop a safe and appropriate exercise routine.

Learn more about physical therapy for RA.

Below are some FAQ relating to RA and exercise.

What exercises should be avoided with RA?

People with RA should avoid strenuous exercise or any exercises that cause pain. However, RA is different for everybody, and there are no specific exercises that everyone with RA should avoid. For example, a person with RA in their hands might not be able to exercise in the same way as someone with RA in their feet.

Learn what exercises to avoid with hip RA.

What activities worsen RA?

High impact exercises that involve twisting or compressing joints may worsen RA symptoms if a person does not perform them correctly. Working with a professional to ensure proper form and starting slowly at low intensity can help a person build safe high intensity performance.

Learn more about physical therapy and how it can help with RA.

Does exercise reduce inflammation in RA?

Exercise can reduce inflammation in RA, lessen pain symptoms and improve flexibility.

Learn more about joint inflammation.

Can exercise reverse RA?

Exercise cannot reverse RA, but it can help people to manage symptoms and improve joint health.

Learn about other natural remedies for RA.

Exercise is usually helpful for people with RA. It offers various benefits, including relieving symptoms, improving joint function, building strength, increasing flexibility, helping daily functioning, improving aerobic fitness, and boosting mood. It can reduce RA flares and make the symptoms of this condition easier to manage.

If possible, a person should work with a doctor and physical therapist to develop a personalized exercise program for the best possible results.

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