If you’re one of the 1.5 million people in the United States living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), exercise may be the furthest thing from your mind. Painful, swollen joints and constant fatigue can make physical activity burdensome.

However, the right plan can help you ease into exercise and allow you to reap the benefits of a more active lifestyle.

Gentle, regular exercise helps strengthen the muscles around your affected joints. It can also help fight the fatigue that’s so common with RA.

In addition, exercise can slow the progression of bone and joint damage. And, as you may have noticed, being inactive can lead to worse joint pain and stiffness.

Your first step is to talk with your doctor about which exercises are best for you. If you have shoulder pain, for example, walking might be better than swimming. Typically, low-impact or nonimpact exercises will be your best bet. They’re easier on your joints but still get you moving.

In general, you’ll want to rest more when you have a flare-up or when your RA is more active. Take advantage of the days when your RA isn’t as bothersome and exercise.

Long periods of rest can make your joints more stiff and painful. Try to keep long episodes of inactivity at a minimum.

Once you know which exercises you can do, think about which of those you’d like to try. Some types of exercise that may be beneficial for people with RA include:

  • yoga or tai chi
  • swimming
  • water aerobics, especially warm water aerobics to soothe joints
  • bicycling
  • walking
  • light stretching
  • light weight training

Try these five tips for making exercise doable.

  1. Start slowly. You may not have the energy or motivation to work out for long periods. Or, alternatively, you may feel like you could exercise for hours. Either way, you need to pace yourself so you don’t get hurt. Start with 5 or 10 minutes the first day. Gradually increase by a minute or so in the following days.
  2. Make it convenient. Is it easier for you to hit the gym and ride a stationary bike? Or is it more convenient to just walk out your front door and up the sidewalk? The more accessible you make your exercise routine, the more likely you are to stick with it.
  3. Ask the experts. If you can, work with your doctor or physical therapist to create a personalized plan.
  4. Have options. Try to find several activities you enjoy that use different parts of your body and that can be done in different locations. This will keep you from getting bored with your routine. It’ll also give you alternatives when you’re out of town or if you can’t leave the house.
  5. Find a partner. Recruiting a friend or family member to exercise with you will help keep you motivated and make the activity more enjoyable.

As you build up strength and endurance, try to work up to 30 minutes of activity, five times a week. You can also divide this into three, 10-minute intervals.

Try to engage in different types of exercise. For instance, you can include a combination of:

  • strength training, such as lifting weights
  • flexibility training, such as yoga or stretching
  • cardio training, such as swimming or bicycling

Make sure you warm up first and stretch afterward.

Remember, if you aren’t feeling up to working out, you may need to take a rest. You may also need to switch to a different activity that doesn’t bother the affected area.