10 Best Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis Recommended by Doctors
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic systemic autoimmune disease that affects your joints as well as various systems of the body.
As a result, RA patients typically endure varying degrees of joint pain, reduced muscle strength, and impaired physical function. Most RA patients experience accelerated loss of muscle mass. All of this underscores the need for exercise, as there are estimations greater than 80 percent of RA patients are physically inactive.
What exercises might be helpful for my RA?
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your RA and overall health. To help, here is a list of the 10 best exercises for RA.
Walking is a low-impact exercise that can vastly improve your aerobic conditioning (i.e., your heart rate and breathing). As a result, it decreases your chances of cardiovascular complications related to RA.
Besides investing in the proper footwear, walking costs you nothing. Also, it’s best to start slowly and increase your pace gradually.
As joints with RA don’t often have the same range of motion as healthy joints, stretching exercises can lengthen and strengthen the muscles around your joints. Ideally, you want to slowly and gently move the joints of the knees, hips, shoulders, and hands.
A simple stretching routine may involve:
- Walking in place and/or pumping the arms while sitting or standing for a minimum of three to five minutes, or;
- Holding stretches for 10 to 20 seconds with two to three repetitions of each stretch.
3. Water exercises
Water exercises are helpful for the symptoms of RA since water relieves pressure on achy joints. RA patients engaging in gentle water exercises, such as swimming and water aerobics, can reap benefits such as increased flexibility, balance, range of motion, strength, and aerobic conditioning.
Start your water workouts slowly and gradually increase your frequency or intensity.
Cycling can improve your aerobic conditioning. Additional benefits of cycling may include reduced stiffness, increased range of motion and leg strength, and greater endurance.
For those averse to the open road, riding a stationary bike can be a safer way to start.
5. Strength training
For RA patients, strength training usually takes the form of resistance training and can be used to bolster much-needed muscle mass. You should start out with resistance bands and over time progress to machines and free weights, if possible, with a target of three sets of 15 repetitions per exercise.
All you need is 20 to 30 minutes for no more than a few times per week.
6. Tai chi
Tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art, may ease the symptoms of RA. RA patients have reported a significant improvement in the range of motion in their joints, especially in their legs and ankles.
The practice of tai chi combines deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and gentle poses.
7. Hand exercises
As the hands are most commonly affected by RA, hand exercises are an integral part of RA self-care.
Some common hand exercises are fingertip touches and thumb crosses as well as finger curls, lifts, and spreads. All of these can keep your fingers limber and improve range of motion.
Yoga can seem intimidating but even patients with RA can glean benefits from its practice.
Some RA-friendly yoga poses include the tree pose, bridge pose, and corpse pose. Even in the midst of an RA flare, chair yoga could be an option.
Your love of gardening should not be affected by a diagnosis of RA. The key is to be adaptable and utilize systems and ergonomic tools that are RA-friendly.
Try working at waist level or use knee pads and limit sessions to no more than 30 minutes per day.
Pilates is another low-impact technique that can strengthen muscles and stabilize joints affected by RA. It can provide an RA-friendly workout for the body and mind.
RA patients are probably best served by starting with mat classes — not machines — and no more than two to three sessions per week.
How can I protect my joints when exercising?
Now that you know some RA-friendly exercises, here are some tips to avoid injury and protect your joints.
In order to achieve and maintain meaningful results with your new RA exercise regimen, you must be consistent. As the symptoms of RA wax and wane, you can always adjust the intensity of your workouts accordingly to maintain your gains.
Variation in the types of exercises can prevent the overworking of muscles and joints, which could lead to flares. Think of the above list of 10 RA-friendly exercises as your menu and choose several with a frequency of once to twice per week.
Wear exercise-specific footwear to protect your feet and ankles and maintain your balance. Today, there are many options for exercise wear that can quickly wick sweat away from your body and even protect you from the sun’s rays.
Don’t just focus on large muscle groups
While large muscle groups are important for exercise, you should also pay attention to the hands, wrists, and fingers. The smaller muscle groups in these regions are just as important because these areas are commonly affected by RA.
Consult with a physical therapist
Physical therapists are an excellent resource to help you design an exercise program to keep the symptoms of RA at bay. Just ask your primary care provider or rheumatologist for a referral before going all in with regular exercise.
What exercises should I avoid if I have RA?
As most exercises can be modified for RA, there are not many exercises that are off limits. However, it is recommended to avoid strenuous (i.e., high impact) exercises such as jogging or heavy weightlifting, which could damage joints.
Exercise is possible with RA and may have numerous benefits, including a reduction in symptoms and/or flares and improvements in flexibility, aerobic fitness, mood, and daily functioning.