Rheumatoid arthritis afflicts more people than you know — and its debilitating effects can impact typical functioning, much less the ability to exercise. Rheumatoid arthritis is a double-edged sword; joint pain does not motivate someone to partake in physical activity, but then again, exercise can help slow its progression and preserve motion. Exercise modifications are possible, depending on the nature and severity of the ailment. Here are a few to consider:
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own joints, causing pain and swelling. It is estimated that more than 1.5 million adults in the United States are affected by RA, with women being 2 to 3 times more likely to develop the condition than men.
RA usually affects the same joints on both sides of the body, most commonly both hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles. It can also cause symptoms like fatigue and weakness.
All of these symptoms can significantly impact daily functions and the ability to exercise. Yet regular exercise is important for preserving joint motion and muscular strength while helping to slow the progression of RA. This article will discuss tips and modifications for exercising safely with RA.
The Painful Problem of RA and Exercise
Because RA attacks the joints and causes significant pain and swelling, it’s possible that some forms of exercise may make your RA symptoms worse. For example, if your RA has damaged your knee or ankle joints, your healthcare provider may suggest you avoid high-impact exercises that involve repeated movements, like running, because they could cause further irritate the joint.
However, regular exercise—when performed safely and with necessary modifications—can make it easier to manage your RA symptoms than not exercising at all. Staying active will help improve your strength and mobility while decreasing levels of inflammation throughout your body.
Moving your body during acute flare-ups of RA will help prevent stiffness from setting in, although you may want to avoid more vigorous exercises until your symptoms calm down.4 Applying ice to your affected joints may help to decrease pain and swelling.
RA Exercise Modifications
When exercising with RA, low-impact exercises that are easy on your joints are a good place to begin. These include activities like:
- Rowing machine
- Water aerobics
- Elliptical machine
Know Your Body’s Limits
Before starting a new exercise program, talk with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s safe. They can help you come up with a workout plan that gradually increases the duration (how many minutes you exercise), frequency (how many times per week you exercise), and intensity (how much resistance you use) of your workouts in order to avoid over-stressing your joints.4
Morning stiffness is common with RA, so give yourself at least five to 10 minutes to warm up before jumping into your workout. This can be as simple as walking or starting with a slower, more gentle version of the exercise you’re about to perform. Small movements like neck and shoulder rolls will help increase blood flow and prepare your joints for exercise.
For strength training, it is best to start with light resistance and gradually progress to more repetitions and/or heavier weights as your muscles adapt and get stronger.5 If the joints of your legs are swollen or painful, avoid weight-bearing exercises that are done while standing and opt instead for leg exercises that can be done sitting or lying down.
These include bridges (lying on your back with your knees bent and raising your hips off the floor) and clamshells (lying on your back and lifting your legs and shoulders off the floor at the same time).
Make sure your weekly workout routine includes adequate rest time. This helps your body recover and get stronger while easing muscle soreness.
Taking Advantage of Tools and Equipment
RA commonly affects the hands and wrists, limiting your ability to hold onto weights and other exercise equipment.
Certain types of exercise equipment are easier to grip. Using these will help to decrease strain on your hand and wrist joints and make exercising more comfortable. These include:
- Elastic resistance bands with handles: These can put less stress on your hand and wrist joints than holding weights. Bands with thick handles are easier to hold than thin bands.
- Ankle and wrist cuff weights: These are secured around your ankles or wrists to provide additional resistance during a workout, with no gripping required. Ankle and wrist weights typically vary from 0.5 pounds to 5 pounds for each side of the body.
- Rubberized dumbbells: If you are able to safely grasp weights, using dumbbells with rubberized coatings can improve comfort because of the additional cushioning they provide between your hand and the handle. Rubberized dumbbells typically range from 1 to 10 pounds.
In addition, grip-strengthening tools can be used to help improve your ability to hold weights and other pieces of equipment when you exercise. These include handheld grip strengtheners, hand and finger elastic bands, handheld grip balls, and therapeutic putty.
Exercises to Avoid
Some types of exercise can further aggravate joints that are already inflamed due to RA. Depending on your fitness level and the severity of your RA, your healthcare provider may suggest you avoid high-impact activities that involve running and jumping.
If RA affects your wrists or knees, exercises that require gripping heavy weights or doing deep knee bends such as squats and lunges may also be uncomfortable and pain-provoking.
Meet With a Trainer or Physical Therapist
If you’re new to exercise or need guidance on the best workouts to improve your strength and mobility while supporting your joints, a trainer or physical therapist can help. They will also provide coaching to make sure you’re performing exercises correctly and safely. In some cases, physical therapy or training may be covered by insurance. Ask your healthcare provider what options might be available to you.
RA is an inflammatory autoimmune condition that causes joint pain and swelling as well as fatigue. When it comes to exercising safely with RA, a good place to start is with low-impact activities like walking, bicycling, and swimming. Allow plenty of time to warm up before a workout, and make sure your weekly exercise routine includes adequate rest time.
For strength training, using equipment that places less stress on your hand and wrist joints such as elastic resistance bands with handles, ankle and wrist cuff weights, and rubberized dumbbells can help make exercising more comfortable and achievable. If you have questions or need guidance on the best exercises for you, a trainer or physical therapist can help.
A Word from Verywell
The thought of exercising can seem daunting when you’re dealing with the pain and discomfort of RA. But gentle, low-impact activities like walking can help ease your joint pain and stiffness, improve your strength and mobility, and boost your energy and stamina. Exercise can also be a great way to socialize: Grab a friend or family member and head out for an activity you both enjoy.
The founder of ADAM Rehabilitation has personal experience with the challenges that rheumatoid arthritis has on the ability to exercise — he witnessed the progressive inability of his mother to enjoy her regular exercises as her rheumatoid arthritis worsened. Unable to find anything on the market to address the problem adequately, he created the ADAM brace. This revolutionary device is stable, protective, and comfortable for his mother to use without needing her hands — and has incredible benefits for people recovering from injury and looking to increase their mobility. Contact us today to learn more! 954.288.1614 or join our Facebook community here.