Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis: Stretches, Exercises and Tips

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy joints. Certain types of exercise help reduce joint pain and stiffness that occurs with this condition. Staying active can also help fight fatigue, maintain strength, and keep bones strong.

This article discusses the types of exercises that can help improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

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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. Additionally, strength exercises for major muscle groups in your body should be done at least twice a week.

Stretching routine

Stiffness is a common feature of rheumatoid arthritis. The stiffness is usually felt first thing in the morning or after 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 up in the morning.

Perform each of the following moves 10 times:

  • Make a fist, then straighten your fingers and spread them wide.
  • Bend your wrists forward and back.
  • Bend and straighten your elbows.
  • Circle your ankles clockwise, then counter-clockwise.
  • While lying on your back, slide your heel toward your buttocks, then release and straighten your knees.

Before you start exercising

Check with your health care provider before starting any new form of exercise to make sure it is safe for you.

While walking

Walking is a low-impact option that can improve your aerobic capacity with rheumatoid arthritis. It can help combat fatigue and depression, which frequently occur with this condition.

Walking for 30 minutes five times a week can help you meet the recommended plan of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. You don’t have to do it all at once; three 10-minute sessions a day have the same benefits.

As a bonus, walking may also help improve sexual function in people with RA, a side effect of this condition that often goes untreated.

Walking with knee pain

If your rheumatoid arthritis affects your knees, walking may be difficult. Try walking in waist-deep water to relieve pressure on your joints.

tai chi

Tai Chi is a form of martial arts that focuses on slow movements, maintaining postures, deep breathing and relaxation techniques. Tai chi is often used to help improve balance and strength and helps decrease pain with certain medical conditions, such as fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis.

The research is unclear as to whether Tai chi can help rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.

Yoga

Yoga has several benefits for people with RA. This type of exercise treats many common symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and can improve flexibility, reduce fatigue, improve sleep, improve mood, and increase grip strength.

You can do video yoga from the comfort of your own home. However, if you have significant joint damage, you may do better in a studio, where an instructor can help you modify the poses to make them safer for you.

Pilates

Pilates is a form of exercise focused on improving posture, strength, coordination, and mind-body connection. It helps reduce stress, a common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis.

Pilates can be practiced in a studio using a type of equipment called a reformer which provides additional resistance using pulleys and springs. You can also do Pilates at home without any equipment.

Aquagym and swimming

Water aerobics and swimming are effective ways to exercise when you suffer from joint pain due to rheumatoid arthritis. The water is buoyant, which reduces the body weight your joints have to bear 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 pain and reduce stiffness.

Bike

Cycling may be beneficial for improving cardiovascular function in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It’s also a good option if weight-bearing exercises (like walking) increase pain in the leg joints.

You can cycle outside or, for a safer alternative, use a stationary bike. If being in an upright position isn’t comfortable for you or if you can’t stand carrying weight with your hands on the handlebars, try a recumbent bike instead, in which you can be in a slightly inclined position.

strength training

Rheumatoid arthritis can lead to loss of muscle mass. However, research shows that strength training at any intensity with rheumatoid arthritis can improve muscle mass and strength without worsening the condition.

Strength training is done at least twice a week and should target major muscles throughout the body. Strength training offers many options, such as gym circuit training, dumbbells or resistance bands, or bodyweight resistance exercises.

Hand exercises

Rheumatoid arthritis causes significant damage to the joints of the hands and fingers, resulting in pain and stiffness that affects many daily tasks. Exercises can help.

Perform 10 reps of these range-of-motion and strengthening exercises for your hands once a day:

  • Spread your fingers apart and then bring them 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 down.
  • Bend your fingers, starting at the knuckle of the fingertips, until you close a full fist. Straighten your fingers.
  • Squeeze a stress ball or tough putty.

Gardening

Leisure activities such as gardening can be effective ways to exercise when you have rheumatoid arthritis. However, they can also stress your aching joints, especially during a flare-up (a time when your symptoms get worse).

Try these tips to protect your joints during gardening activities:

  • Carry objects close to your body.
  • Incorporate stretching breaks every 30 minutes.
  • Sit on a stool rather than bending or kneeling.
  • Use a cart to transport items to and from your garden.
  • Use tools with thicker handles to reduce pressure on your hand joints.

Don’t overdo it

Although exercise is important for maintaining function with rheumatoid arthritis, doing too much or the wrong type of exercise can make the condition worse. Listen to your body and avoid exercises that cause pain or are so intense that they tire you too much to do your daily activities.

Exercises to Avoid

RA symptoms tend to fluctuate and flare-ups occur. Use caution when exercising during a flare-up. Stick to walking and gentle stretching, and make sure to avoid painful movements.

It is important to listen to your body. Follow these “SMART” tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for exercising safely with rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Slow pie, go slow.
  • Mchange activity when arthritis symptoms increase, try to stay active.
  • AActivities should be fun.
  • Rknow safe places and ways to be active.
  • JSpeak to a medical professional or certified exercise specialist.

physical therapy

For personalized exercise recommendations, consult a physical therapist. Rheumatoid arthritis can lead to significant joint damage over time, and exercising the wrong way can make that damage worse, especially if you have joint deformities.

Summary

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that damages your joints. Exercises can improve the stiffness, muscle weakness, and joint pain that occurs with this condition. Exercise also helps improve 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 difficult, but staying active can help you continue doing the activities you love. If you don’t know where to start, talk to your health care provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the best type 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 a person with rheumatoid arthritis avoid?

    People with rheumatoid arthritis should avoid any exercise that increases pain or fatigue.

  • How long will it take to see results from exercise on rheumatoid arthritis?

    It may take several weeks or even months for you to notice improvements in your strength with rheumatoid arthritis, but some benefits, such as improved mood, can be seen immediately.

  • How often should a person 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.

Kristen T. Prall