Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can affect many parts of the body, but its primary targets are the linings of your joints. When affected joints are inflamed, even simple activities like walking or housework can become difficult. However, physical activity is an important part of managing RA symptoms.
Exercise is recommended for individuals who have RA because it can help strengthen the muscles around the joints and stabilize the joints themselves. Exercise can also provide a boost of energy, which is especially important to counteract the fatigue that often accompanies an RA flare-up.
Pacing and Variety
Two keys to a successful RA exercise plan require you to start slowly and to be willing to mix up your routine. You’ll eventually want to exercise at least 30 to 40 minutes five days a week. If you haven’t been very active lately, try 10 minutes a day for a few weeks or until you’re ready to do more. Breaking up your exercises into three 10-minute workouts can also be helpful.
You’ll also stick with an exercise routine longer if you have a little variety in your workouts. If swimming is your main exercise, skip the pool once in a while and ride your bike instead. If your body feels good enough for tennis or jogging, mix those activities in. When you become bored with your workouts, you’re more likely to stop, and that’s not good.
Warm Up Right
Before doing any exercise it’s important to loosen your muscles and get your blood pumping. Five minutes of walking while pumping your arms may be enough to get you warmed up.
After that, some gentle stretching will help ready you for whatever activity you have planned, whether it’s gardening, swimming, biking, or yoga. With each stretch, move slowly and only stretch to the point at which you feel your muscles just start to strain. Don’t stretch so much that it hurts. Be sure to stop if you feel a sharp pain, as that can indicate an injury.
Touch Your Toes
One of the most basic stretches is also one of the most challenging. Sit on the floor or a mat with your back straight and your legs straight out in front of you. Reach for your toes and hold the stretch for 10 to 20 seconds. Slowly pull back until you’re sitting upright again.
Stretch Your Fingers
RA often affects the small joints in the hand, so it’s important to keep your fingers limber. One exercise that can help involves curling your fingers into a fist. Start with your fingers straight up and then slowly curl them down, one knuckle or joint at a time. Repeat several times with each hand.
Another good stretch for the fingers starts by placing your hand flat on a table or other firm, flat surface. Spread your fingers out as much as you can without hurting yourself. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds and repeat throughout the day.
Having RA may mean your shoulders are under added strain. If you find yourself hunching over, you may be straining your shoulders and back muscles, or struggling with weakened pectoral or chest muscles.
A simple stretch here can be done while sitting. Keep your back straight and your arms by your sides. Bend your elbows at your sides and keep your palms up, as if making a “W.” Then try to pinch your shoulder blades together. Stretch and hold for 10 to 20 seconds.
Pick an Activity
Now that you’ve stretched and warmed up, what’s a good exercise if you have rheumatoid arthritis? Brisk walking is a good exercise for almost everybody. If your knees and ankles can handle it, jogging may help you burn more calories and get an even better cardiovascular workout at the same time.
RA can really make your knees and ankles sore. You should consider a workout that takes some of the stress off those joints. Swimming and warm-water exercise, such as water aerobics, are excellent because the buoyancy of the water relieves a lot of pressure on your joints. If walking is too uncomfortable, riding a bicycle may be a better choice for you and your lower joints.
For a less vigorous activity, look into a beginner’s yoga class. Yoga can be quite challenging, but starting at an introductory level will help you advance slowly. If you do want to take a yoga class, ask around in your community for a yoga class taught by someone who has some familiarity with the limits and concerns of people with RA.
Get Help with Your Plan
The exercises suggested above may help you get started. If you want to craft a more formal exercise routine, consult your doctor or a physical therapist trained to work with RA patients. This is especially true if you haven’t been active for a while or you need to focus on certain joints or muscles for therapeutic rehabilitation.
If you have been physically active throughout your life and have just been diagnosed with RA, you should also work with a physical therapist or professional trainer who has experience working with people with RA. You’ll want to learn how to exercise safely, avoid injury, and adjust your workouts if you’re having a flare-up.
Having RA will present new challenges when it comes to exercising, but staying active is critically important. People with RA are more vulnerable to cardiovascular disease, and regular exercise is the key to staying healthy and maintaining a good quality of life.