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Rheumatoid arthritis and exercise

Although exercise and some movements can be painful with rheumatoid arthritis, it is important to keep joints moving and to keep active.

Good reasons for exercise with rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • People who exercise live longer, with or without rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Regular exercise can actually reduce overall pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Exercise can keep your bones strong. Thinning of the bones can be a problem with rheumatoid arthritis, especially if you need to take steroids. Exercise helps bones keep their strength.
  • Exercise maintains muscle strength.
  • Regular exercise improves functional ability and lets you do more for yourself.
  • People with rheumatoid arthritis who exercise feel better about themselves and are better able to cope with problems.

Is exercise safe if you have rheumatoid arthritis?

Seek medical advice before starting a new exercise programme, but certain kinds of exercise are generally considered to be safe for people with rheumatoid arthritis. There are three types you can do: stretching, strengthening and conditioning.

  • Stretching exercises are the simplest and easiest. They consist of stretching and holding different joint and muscle groups for 10 to 30 seconds each. Stretching improves flexibility, and daily stretching is the basis for any exercise programme.
  • Strength exercises involve working the muscle against resistance. This can be done either with or without weights. Resistance training strengthens the muscle and increases the amount of pain-free activity you can take on.  
  • Conditioning exercise, also called aerobic exercise, improves cardiovascular fitness. There are countless benefits to aerobic exercise. Among others, the exercise helps to make your heart and blood vessels healthier, prevent disability, and improve mood and well-being. Good conditioning exercises for people with rheumatoid arthritis include low-impact activities like walking, swimming, cycling or using an elliptical machine. Any of these will get your heart pumping.

    After getting clearance from your doctor, you should try to do 20 to 30 minutes of low-impact conditioning exercise on as many days as you feel you can. More is better, but any amount is better than none at all.

Exercises to avoid if you have rheumatoid arthritis

Are there any kinds of exercise you should avoid if you have rheumatoid arthritis? In general, you should be careful about activities that put a lot of stress on a joint, or are ’high-impact’, such as:

  • Jogging, especially on roads or pavements
  • Heavy weight-lifting

That's not to say these activities are totally off-limits. If you're interested in trying them, talk to your doctor first.

Your rheumatologist can help you create an exercise programme that is right for you. This may also involve meeting with a physiotherapist. Physiotherapists can identify which areas you need to work on, choose the right exercises for you, and tell you how vigorously you should exercise.

Some sports centres offer special exercise classes for the over-60s and disabled people, and for those with long-term conditions such as arthritis. If you prefer to exercise at home, Tai' Chi arthritis DVDs are available. Tips are also available from the National Osteoporosis Society and Arthritis Care.

You should work with your treatment team to design the right plan before starting to exercise, especially if you have other medical problems.

As you start to exercise regularly, you'll realise the benefits, and you'll know you've taken control of your rheumatoid arthritis. Soon, not only will your joints feel better but you'll feel better too.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on September 08, 2014

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