The idea of regular physical exercise can seem challenging, even daunting, when you are suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but experts suggest that physical activity is an important part of helping to manage the condition.
Ideally we should all be engaged in between two and a half to five hours per week of moderate physical exercise, including a couple of muscle strengthening activities per week. This may seem unachievable, so starting slow and gradually increasing the duration and/or intensity might make it more doable. It’s a good idea to speak to your rheumatologist for their recommendations on exercises that would be best for you. They might suggest for you to also see a physiotherapist.
What about during a flare-up?
During a flare up, the last thing you’ll want to do is exercise. While it is important to rest your affected joints, gently moving them as much as you feel comfortable, a few times a day can help reduce stiffness.
Here are some common forms of exercise that are particularly suitable for RA sufferers.
Stretching before and after physical activity is always a good idea but for RA sufferers forms of exercise such as yoga and Pilates are especially beneficial in their own right. They can help you maintain flexibility and range of motion in your joints. The Chinese practice of Tai Chi, with its gentle, flowing movements is another option to consider.
Swimming or exercising in water is especially helpful when your joints are painful and swollen as the water helps support your weight to reduce stress on the joints while warm water can help reduce swelling. Water also provides gentle resistance to your movements so as well as achieving movement you will also get an aerobic and strengthening workout.
RA sufferers are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease which makes it important to incorporate some exercise to get your heart rate up. Stationary exercise bikes are a sensible, safe solution or try some brisk walking as this has the added advantage of being a weight-bearing exercise.
Strengthening your muscles can help take some of the strain away from stressed joints. Free weights can work well as they don’t force the body to move in a certain way like machines do but it’s important to get guidance from a physical therapist to make sure your form is correct. Resistance training using rubber bands and your own bodyweight can also be safe and effective.
Don’t forget that smaller joints will benefit from exercises that put them through a range of motion and activate the muscles. Rotating your wrists, slowly opening and closing your hands one joint at a time and spreading your fingers wide can help combat the hand dysfunction which is common in RA.
If you are planning on exploring the benefits of exercise in helping to manage RA, then it’s a good idea to consult your GP or Rheumatologist first for advice and guidance. A physiotherapist might also be helpful too.
- 1. Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. Australian Government Department of Health. Accessed October 2018.
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- 4. 8 Tips for Exercising with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Everyday Health. Accessed October 2018.
- 5. Best exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation. Accessed October 2018.