By now, most of us know that maintaining a healthy weight — one that’s neither too high nor too low — is vital for our overall wellbeing. But did you know that if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your body mass index (BMI) could affect the frequency and severity of symptoms?

A recent study shows that patients in the earlier stages of rheumatoid arthritis who had either very low or very high BMI numbers were less likely to have any extended periods of remission. BMI is a rough calculation of a person’s body fat level, based on their weight and height. The higher a person’s BMI number, the lower their chances of a long remission, according to the study data.

In a statement at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual meeting, Dr. Susan Goodman, a rheumatologist from the Hospital for Special Surgery, where the study was conducted, said, “What’s striking is that … all the patients in the underweight or overweight categories were much less likely to achieve sustained remission compared to those with a normal BMI. Patients who were severely obese had an even lower chance of achieving sustained remission. Individuals in the highest BMI categories also had more inflammation and more pain.”

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Why Is a Healthy BMI Important?

BMI is a major indicator of physical health. It can be used to screen for potential future health problems, but isn’t typically used for diagnosis. The Centers for Disease Control maintains that a healthy average BMI range is 18.5 to 24.9 for most adults.

Chiropractor Frank Verri of the Greater Pittsburgh Joint and Muscle Center told Healthline, “It’s been known for a long time that those who have a high BMI particularly are more susceptible to inflammation. This study, however, sets a whole new course for rheumatic patients in remission. Knowing this, a lot more preventative measures can be made.”

Elizabeth Kay, a juvenile rheumatoid arthritis patient from Freeport, Texas, hopes that weight management will reduce her symptoms. “I’ve been told that being overweight puts more pressure and stress on your joints, so in order to keep them feeling better, I should lose weight,” she told Healthline.

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How Can I Exercise with RA?

In addition to balanced eating, exercise is one way to maintain a healthy weight and an appropriate BMI score. However, the physical limitations that RA can cause may make BMI maintenance more difficult than usual.

Doctors usually suggest low-impact exercises for rheumatoid arthritis patients. Examples of such exercises include biking, yoga, tai chi, water aerobics, resistance bands, and swimming. These, coupled with a balanced and nutritious diet, can help RA patients maintain an optimal BMI. Your local Arthritis Foundation office may also have information about arthritis-friendly exercise programs.

Always consult your rheumatologist before beginning any exercise program, but don’t be intimidated by the gym. When it comes to arthritis, exercise is a crucial component of disease management.