Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes the immune system to attack healthy joints. Certain types of exercise help reduce joint pain and stiffness occurring with this condition. Staying active can also help combat fatigue, maintain strength, and keep bones strong.
This article discusses types of exercise that can help improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis
A well-rounded exercise program for rheumatoid arthritis should include stretching, aerobic conditioning, and strengthening exercises.
The recommended amount of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for adults is at least 150 minutes per week. In addition, strength-training exercises for the major muscle groups throughout your body should be performed at least twice a week.
Stiffness is a common characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis. Stiffness usually is felt first thing in the morning or after you’ve been sitting for a while.
Joint stiffness often affects the hands, wrists, ankles, knees, and elbows. You can do stretches for these joints before you get out of bed in the morning.
Perform each of the following movements 10 times:
- Make a fist and then straighten your fingers and spread them wide apart.
- Bend your wrists forward and backward.
- Bend and straighten your elbows.
- Circle your ankles clockwise, then counterclockwise.
- While lying on your back, slide your heel toward your buttocks, then release and straighten your knees.
Before You Begin Exercising
Check with your healthcare provider before you begin any new form of exercise to be sure it is safe for you.
Walking is a low-impact option that can improve your aerobic fitness with rheumatoid arthritis. It can help combat fatigue and depression, which commonly occur with this condition.
Walking for 30 minutes five times per week can help you reach the recommended plan of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. It doesn’t have to be done all at once; three 10-minute sessions in a day have the same benefits.
As a bonus, walking can also help improve sexual function in people with RA—a side effect of this condition that isn’t frequently addressed.
Walking With Knee Pain
If your RA is affecting your knees, walking might be difficult. Try walking in waist-deep water to relieve pressure on your joints.
Tai chi is a form of martial arts focused on slow movements, maintaining postures, deep breathing, and relaxation techniques. Tai chi is often used to help improve balance and strength and helps to decrease pain with some medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.
Research is unclear on whether Tai chi can help symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. However, this doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.
Yoga has several benefits for people with RA. This type of exercise addresses many common symptoms of RA and can improve flexibility, reduce fatigue, improve sleep, boost mood, and increase grip strength.
You can do video-led yoga in the comfort of your own home. However, if you have significant joint damage, you might do better in a studio, where an instructor can help modify the poses to make them safer for you.
Pilates is a form of exercise focused on improving posture, strength, coordination, and the mind-body connection. It helps decrease stress, a common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis.
Pilates can be done in a studio using a type of equipment called a reformer that provides additional resistance using pulleys and springs. You can also do Pilates at home without any equipment.
Water Aerobics and Swimming
Water aerobics and swimming are effective ways to exercise when you have joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis. Water is buoyant, which reduces the body weight your joints have to support during exercise.
The deeper the water, the more your body weight is supported. You can exercise in the deep end of a pool with a buoyancy belt. As an added benefit, pools used for exercise are often heated, which helps relieve joint soreness and reduce stiffness.
Cycling can be beneficial for improving cardiovascular function in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It is also a good option if weight-bearing exercises (such as walking) increase pain in your leg joints.
You can ride your bike outdoors, or for a safer alternative, use a stationary bike. If being in an upright position is not comfortable for you or if you can’t tolerate weight bearing through your hands on the handles, try a recumbent bike, in which you can be in a slightly reclined position, instead.
Rheumatoid arthritis can cause loss of muscle mass. However, research shows that strength training at any intensity with rheumatoid arthritis can improve muscle mass and strength without making the condition worse.
Strength training is done at least twice a week and should target the major muscles throughout the body. Strength training offers many options, such as gym circuit training, dumbbells or resistance bands, or body-weight resistance exercises.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes significant damage to joints in the hands and fingers, which leads to pain and stiffness that affects many daily tasks. Exercises can help.
Perform 10 repetitions of these range of motion and strengthening exercises for your hands once daily:
- Spread your fingers apart and then bring them back together.
- Touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of each finger.
- Place your palm on a flat surface. Lift one finger at a time and lower it back down.
- Bend your fingers, beginning with the joint at your fingertips, until you make a full fist. Straighten your fingers back out.
- Squeeze a stress ball or resistive putty.
Leisure activities such as gardening can be effective ways to exercise when you have rheumatoid arthritis. However, they can also stress your painful joints, particularly during a flare-up (a time when your symptoms worsen).
Try these tips for protecting your joints during gardening activities:
- Carry items close to your body.
- Incorporate stretch breaks every 30 minutes.
- Sit on a stool rather than bending over or kneeling.
- Use a wagon to transport items to and from your garden.
- Use tools with thicker handles to reduce pressure on your hand joints.
Don’t Overdo It
While exercise is important for maintaining function with rheumatoid arthritis, doing too much or the wrong type of exercise can worsen the condition. Listen to your body and avoid exercises that cause pain or are so intense that they make you too tired to do your daily activities.
Exercises to Avoid
Symptoms of RA tend to fluctuate, and flare-ups do occur. Use caution when exercising during a flare-up. Stick to walking and gentle stretches, and be sure to avoid any painful movements.
It is important to listen to your body. Follow these “SMART” tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to exercise safely with RA:
- Start low, go slow.
- Modify activity when arthritis symptoms increase, try to stay active.
- Activities should be joint friendly.
- Recognize safe places and ways to be active.
- Talk to a healthcare professional or certified exercise specialist.
For personalized exercise recommendations, see a physical therapist. Rheumatoid arthritis can lead to significant joint damage over time, and exercising the wrong way can worsen that damage, especially if you have joint deformities.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory condition that causes damage to your joints. Exercises can improve stiffness, muscle weakness, and joint pain that occurs with this condition. Exercise also helps boost your mood. A well-rounded exercise program for RA includes strength training, aerobic conditioning, and flexibility exercises.
A Word From Verywell
Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be challenging, but staying active can help ensure you are able to continue the activities that you enjoy. If you aren’t sure where to start, talk to your healthcare provider.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best kind of exercise for someone with rheumatoid arthritis?
A well-rounded exercise program for rheumatoid arthritis includes strength training, aerobic activities, and stretching.
What exercises should someone with rheumatoid arthritis avoid?
People with rheumatoid arthritis should avoid any exercises that increase pain or fatigue.
How long will it take to see the results of exercise on rheumatoid arthritis?
It can take several weeks or even months to notice improvements in your strength with rheumatoid arthritis, but some benefits, such as improving mood, can be seen right away.
How frequently should someone with rheumatoid arthritis exercise?
The CDC recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic training per week, with additional strength training sessions twice per week.