Exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis

June 1, 2015

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that affects people’s joints and limbs, limiting their ability to move freely and partake in daily activities as the average person would. Exercise may be an important tool to alleviating some of these symptoms, allowing one to regain their autonomy and relieve themselves of the obstacles and hindrances that come along with having Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).

What is RA?

Rheumatoid Arthritis is different from other forms of arthritis as it is an autoimmune disease. Therefore, the body is attacking itself as the immune system attempts to destroy the membranes that surround your joints. RA can also go onto affect the heart, lungs and skin. As with other autoimmune diseases, the prevalence of RA can be attributed mostly to genetics, followed by environment. The good news is that research has shown that exercise can actually help one live with their RA and better manage their pain.

How Exercise can help?

Exercises that are geared towards strengthening your muscles and surrounding joints, are especially helpful in reducing joint pain and stiffness. Flexibility is also useful in achieving this end and the act of exercise in general is great for ensuring a better night’s sleep as well as boosting one’s endurance. An ideal exercise regimen for someone who suffers from RA should include a combination of all of these forms of exercise: aerobic, strength training and stretching. This will ensure that many of the symptoms are being addressed at their origin, making it more likely that one will be pain-free.

  • Stretching:While many others may ignore this important step, people with RA should be extra mindful of the fact that they must prep and relieve their joints before and after any form of light to vigorous exercise. Everything from gardening or chasing around grandchildren to formal exercise deserves a good stretch to let your body know what is to come and to properly cool down from what just occurred. Even on its own, taking the time to just practice a full stretching routine on a regular basis is a great idea.
    • Yoga: There are plenty of beginner classes available for those who have never tried or are weary of doing advanced poses as they may irritate RA even worse. Remember, that a good yoga instructor will also have moderated poses available to you for your condition.
  • Aerobics:The best time of aerobic exercise for those with RA is to practice low-impact forms. These are nice and easy on the joints and will not put you at additional risk of injury. Some of the activities in this category include the basic elliptical, stationary bike, water aerobics or the very popular, walking routine. Avoiding harsh pressure and abrupt movements on the joints is key during these activities.
    • Water Aerobics: Doing exercise in the water is great because your body weight is mostly supported and you hardly feel any pressure at all on your joints. You can do formal water aerobic routines or simply walk laps up and down the pool to get a great RA-friendly workout.
    • Walking: This is a fan favorite, because the speed, distance and all-around intensity are truly in the control of the person conducting the exercise.
  • Strength Training:Some may be fearful of this, especially if they have never trained in this way earlier in life. The reality is that there are many different ways to strength train and it does not always involve being amongst grunting, muscle-heads at the gym. While weight training is an excellent way to go (no matter how light the weight), there are also other tools available, such as resistance bands and weight machines that you may

    be more comfortable with. Depending on which joints are afflicted by your RA, you may find of form of strength training more suitable or convenient for you.

    • Resistance Bands: these are a favorite, because instead of adding direct pressure to joints, you can increase or decrease intensity to your liking, as well as take them anywhere you go.

Exercises to avoid

No matter what your physical fitness level is or was before your RA diagnosis, it is a good idea to limit if not fully avoid activities that require you to change direction abruptly or do any explosive movements (e.g. plyometrics). Formal sports activities such as tennis, basketball and soccer, may be some that you will want to stay away from because of their physical requirements.

Because RA tends to have peaks and valleys in terms of pain, it is very useful to have an assortment of exercises available to go along with however you are feeling on a given day. Understanding your limits is essential for your safety, yet knowing your options is also empowering. Knowing that your RA and its associated pain will not stop you from living life the way you’d like is a wonderful thing and spreading this knowledge to others who may be suffering is even better.


  • Felicia September 6, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Hi Elena,
    I did not know that rheumatoid arthritis can also affect the skin, heart and lungs. My aunt who is more than 50 years old suffers from rheumatoid arthritis (sadly, it is genetic so I think I’ll have RA as well when I become old), and she says stretching, walking and swimming relieves her from her RA pains. Sometimes her joints become so stiff and painful that she is forced to drink some pain meds. I’d recommend her getting some resistance bands as suggested here on your post. Thanks for sharing!

    • Elena Anne October 7, 2012 at 2:40 am

      Hi Felicia,
      Resistance exercise is very helpful for people with RA. One of the benefits is that it prevents the joints to become stiff and controls the pain. RA does not appear only to old people. It is a disease that affects adults at all ages.