If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you know that exercise is good for you. But finding the time, energy, and motivation to actually get moving can be difficult. This is especially true when you’re in pain.
But research shows that RA patients who exercise have less pain than other RA patients. Exercise can help boost your mood, improve joint function, and prevent muscle wasting and weakness.
Here are seven exercises specifically for RA patients.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with RA show greater improvements in health after participating in hydrotherapy—exercising in warm water—than with other activities. Studies show that people with RA who participated in hydrotherapy had less pain and joint tenderness. Hydrotherapy also improved their mood and overall well-being.
Water-based exercises, like swimming and water aerobics, also improve the use of affected joints and decrease pain.
Tai chi (sometimes called “moving meditation”) 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. Participants in one study 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.
If you have RA, getting your heart pumping is essential. This is because those with RA are at a higher risk for cardiovascular diseases and complications. Biking is an excellent, low-impact exercise that’s easier on the joints than other aerobic exercises.
Biking helps maintain cardiovascular health, increases leg strength, and reduces morning stiffness. You can bike outside, join a cycling group, or use a stationary bike at the gym or in your home.
A walk in the park may sound too simple, but it’s one of the easiest and most convenient forms of exercise. In addition to getting your heart rate up, walking can loosen your joints and help reduce pain. Research has found that just 30 minutes of walking a day can boost your mood, too.
If you're having trouble with balance, try using walking poles to help stabilize yourself. If the weather has you stuck inside, head to an indoor track or get on a treadmill instead.
Yoga, which combines postures with breathing and relaxation, also helps improve RA symptoms. Studies show that younger individuals with RA who practiced yoga experienced improvements in pain and mood. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University found similar results: RA patients had fewer tender and swollen joints than they did before practicing yoga.
“Yoga or yoga stretching can help patients improve flexibility and range of motion,” says Dr. Mario Siervo, director of medical staff operations at Leon Medical Centers.
Healthcare professionals often 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.”
Dr. Naheed Ali, author of “Arthritis and You,” recommends finger curling, mild wrist bending, and thumb stretching as well.
RA often leads to weakened muscles, which can worsen joint pain. Strength training helps decrease pain and increase muscle strength. Stronger muscles better support your joints and make daily activities much easier.
Try lifting weights at home two to three times a week. You can also try resistance bands, as long as your fingers and wrists are in good shape. Talk to your doctor and consider working with a personal trainer if you’re anxious about lifting weights or using resistance bands on your own.
Whichever exercise you choose, the important thing is to keep at it. Some days you’re likely to feel more pain than others. That's Okay. Just exercise with less intensity on those days, try a different type of exercise, or take a day off.
If your hands can't grip a weight, use a resistance band around your forearm instead. If all you can do is walk, then go for a stroll outside. Even if it's at a slow pace, you'll likely feel much better afterwards.