For people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), exercise can be hugely beneficial for relieving pain and joint stiffness. Exercising and stretching can be particularly helpful during a flare.
People with RA who exercise may find that they have less pain that 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 to 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, and other symptoms that RA can cause:
Stretching can help improve flexibility, reduce stiffness, and increase range of motion. Stretching daily, ideally in the morning, is important for relieving RA symptoms.
The ideal stretching routine will be different for each person and will depend on which joints are affected and what symptoms occur. However, stretches often involve slowly and gently moving the joints of the knees, hands, and elbows.
A typical stretching routine may consist of:
- Warming up by walking in place or pumping the arms while sitting or standing for 3–5 minutes.
- Holding each stretch for 10–20 seconds before releasing it.
- Repeating each stretch 2–3 times. Using a yoga strap may help people maintain proper form while stretching.
Many people will find it beneficial to work with a physical therapist who understands RA to learn the correct way to perform the stretches that meet their personal needs.
Walking is a low-impact form of 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. It is often sensible to walk slowly initially and then increase the pace when possible.
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 buy DVDs of tai chi or yoga workouts that are specifically for people with RA.
Pilates is a low-impact activity that stabilizes the joints and strengthens the muscles around them. People new to Pilates should begin with a routine that uses a mat rather than a machine to build muscle strength safely.
5. Water exercises
Water helps support body weight, 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. They can also reduce joint stress and stiffness.
As RA increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, it is vital to keep the heart as healthy as possible. Riding a stationary bike can be a safe way to get the joints moving and improve cardiovascular fitness.
In addition to improving aerobic conditioning, cycling can reduce stiffness, increase range of motion and leg strength, and build endurance.
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 one of the best ways 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.
8. Hand exercises
RA can sometimes lead to limited use of the hands. 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.
As well as being a form of exercise, gardening offers the benefit of improving mood. People should be gentle with their body, work slowly, and avoid overstraining the muscles and joints.
The tips below may improve safety and comfort when exercising with RA:
People need to exercise consistently to achieve meaningful results. It is important to keep at it and practice regularly. Some days may be less comfortable than others, but it is possible to adjust the intensity accordingly.
Accessorize for comfort and protection
The following methods can help people exercise more comfortably with less risk of injury:
- Choosing proper shoes that provide the right protection and balance.
- Using a slip-resistant yoga mat.
- Wearing comfortable clothes that wick sweat away quickly.
Listening to music can provide motivation and help pass time when exercising.
RA symptoms can vary daily, and they tend to come in waves. People often experience flares and periods of remission.
Doing a variety of exercises and mixing up the daily routine can help people avoid overworking one set of muscles or particular joints.
For example, a person doing morning stretches each day may choose to add strength training twice a week, a water workout once a week, and yoga or tai chi twice a week, symptoms permitting. This variety should prevent any overuse injuries, which can aggravate symptoms and counter the benefits of the exercise.
Adjust exercises according to symptoms
On days when symptoms are more severe, people can reduce the intensity of the exercise. For example, they could place a resistance band around the forearms instead of holding it in the hands.
Alternatively, they can try a different type of exercise or exercise for a shorter time.
On days when cycling or swimming seems too much, switching this type of activity to a leisurely stroll or some stretching will still be beneficial.
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.
It is vital to choose the right pace and listen to the body. If exercise causes discomfort or a flare, it is best to reduce the session. For example, do 10 minutes instead of 30. People should also take time off when necessary.
Pay attention to small things
Most exercises focus on large muscle groups. It is essential to make time for smaller parts of the body, such as the hands and fingers. Creating a daily routine out of these focused exercises can help.
Work with a physical therapist
Working with a physical therapist who specializes in RA can be helpful in developing a safe and appropriate exercise routine. This collaboration can be particularly beneficial for people with a new RA diagnosis or those who are experiencing a severe flare.
People with RA should avoid strenuous exercise or any exercises that cause pain. These may include high-impact exercises that put excessive strain on the joints.
However, there are no specific exercises that everyone with RA should avoid. Each person is different, and an activity that causes pain for one person may not have the same effect on another person.
What is right for someone will depend on their situation and health condition. However, everyone is likely to benefit from paying close attention to their body and working with a doctor or physical therapist for guidance.
Exercise is usually very helpful for people with RA. It offers a range of benefits, which include 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.
It is a good idea to work with a doctor and physical therapist to develop a personalized exercise program for the best possible results.