8 Essential Everyday Exercises to Manage Pain
With RA, It's Important to Move
If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know that exercise is good for you. But finding the time, energy, and motivation may be difficult—particularly if you're in pain.
Research has found that RA patients exercise less than their healthy counterparts. Yet, exercise is critical to joint function and pain relief, as well as prevention of muscle wasting and weakness. It can also help boost your mood. Here are eight options that all work well for RA patients.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with RA show greater improvements in health after participating in hydrotherapy—exercising in warm water—than with other activities. In a related study, patients who attended 30-minute sessions twice weekly for four weeks experienced an improvement in joint tenderness, range of movement, and emotional wellbeing.
Water-based exercises, such as swimming and water aerobics, also improve the use of affected joints and decrease pain.
Tai chi is a traditional Chinese martial art that combines slow and gentle movements with mental focus. This exercise improves muscle function and stiffness and reduces pain and stress levels in patients with RA. Patients reported feeling better after practicing Tai chi, and had an overall brighter outlook on life.
You can purchase DVDs to help you get started, or go to a class in your area. Dr. Paul Lam, a family physician in Sydney, Australia, has Tai chi DVDs available specifically for patients with arthritis.
RA patients are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, so getting your heart pumping is important. However, many aerobic exercises can be hard on your joints. That's why doctors often recommend biking as a good aerobic, low-impact option.
You can bike outside, join a cycling group at the gym, or use a stationary bike in your home. Whichever one you choose, biking helps maintain cardiovascular health, slow down the progression of RA, increase leg strength, and reduce morning stiffness.
Walking is one of the easiest forms of exercise, and it has numerous benefits. In addition to getting your heart rate up, it can loosen your joints and help reduce pain. Walking can also lighten your mood. Research reported in the British Medical Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking 30 minutes a day boosted the moods in depressed patients faster than antidepressants.
If you're having trouble with balance, try using walking poles, which can help stabilize you.
Yoga, which combines physical postures with breathing and relaxation, also helps improve symptoms in RA patients. A 2011 study showed that individuals with RA who practiced yoga experienced significant improvements. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University found similar results—RA patients had fewer tender and swollen joints than they did before starting yoga class.
"Yoga or yoga stretching can help patients improve flexibility and range of motion," says Mario Siervo, M.D., director of medical staff operations at Leon Medical Centers, "[which is] especially important as we age."
Other Types of Stretching
Healthcare professionals typically recommend stretching for RA patients. "Stretching should include the muscles of your arms, your back, your hips, the front and back of your thighs, and calves," says Dr. Philip Conwisar, an orthopedic surgeon in California. "Do some stretches first thing in the morning, take a stretch break instead of a coffee break, or stretch in the office for a few minutes."
Naheed Ali, M.D., and author of Arthritis and You, recommends finger curling, mild wrist bending, and thumb stretching as well.
RA often leads to weakened muscles, which can make joint pain worse. Strength training helps decrease pain and increase muscle strength. Stronger muscles better support your joints and make daily activities much easier.
Talk to your doctor and consider working with a personal trainer. Try weights at home two to three times a week—just be sure to work carefully and gradually. Resistance bands are particularly beneficial for RA patients, as they tend to encourage more gradual movement.
This is a fun exercise performed on a mini-trampoline. It's considered one of the safest exercises for all ages, including the elderly. The rebounder absorbs the impact of the exercise, yet it gets your heart pumping and your joints moving.
You can burn calories while exercising at the intensity that feels right to you. If you're not confident about your balance, you can purchase a rebounder with a stabilizing bar to hold onto.
Adjust to Your Condition
Whichever exercise you choose, the important thing is to keep at it. Some days you are likely to feel more pain than others. That's OK. Just exercise with less intensity on those days, or try a different type of exercise.
If your hands won't grip a weight, use a resistance band around your wrist instead. If all you can do is walk, walk. Even if it's at a slow pace, you'll likely feel much better afterwards.