Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Posted on 27 September, 2020 at 5:50

Is exercise recommended for RA?

Exercise is an important part of managing RA.

People with RA who exercise have:

• higher levels of fitness

• better muscle strength and size

• greater ability to do daily tasks

• improved mood and emotional well-being.

Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy body

weight and improve the health of your heart and blood

vessels. Some types of exercise may also help improve

the strength of your bones and reduce your risk of

osteoporosis (thinning of the bones).

Many people with RA are anxious about exercising.

This may be due to fear of causing damage to the joints

or the presence of pain. However research shows that

people with RA can participate in regular, appropriate

exercise without causing joint damage or worsening of

symptoms. Everyone’s fitness levels and limitations will

be different so start with activities that suit you. While

some people with arthritis will find a five kilometre

walk easy, others may find walking around the block

difficult enough to start with. If you have damage

to the larger joints in your legs, such as your hips or

knees, it is generally recommended to avoid activities

that put excessive force on those joints (for example,

running and jumping). Talk to your rheumatologist

(arthritis specialist) to find out if there are activities that

you should avoid. You may also find it helpful to ask a

physiotherapist for advice on exercising safely.

What types of exercise could I try?

There are many activities that are safe and effective

for people with RA. Any activity that works your

muscles a bit harder or causes you to ‘puff’ a little,

without increasing your pain or other symptoms, will

be beneficial. Choose activities that you enjoy and are

convenient. Activities that are particularly useful include:

Water exercise: Many people with RA prefer

exercising in water. The buoyancy of the water takes

pressure off painful joints and you may find you

can move more freely than you can on land. Warm

water can also be soothing for sore muscles and

stiff joints.If you are new to exercise or your

RA is limiting your ability to exercise, you may find it

useful to have one-on-one hydrotherapy sessions with

a physiotherapist. 

Strength training: Muscle weakness is very common

in RA. A combination of pain, fatigue (tiredness) and

the disease itself often leads to weakening and wasting

of the muscles. This can make it even more tiring to

do your normal daily activities. Research has shown 

that muscle weakness in RA can be prevented and

even reversed by strength training. Strength training

involves working your muscles a little harder than you

do in normal life. You do this by working with hand

weights, leg weights, gym machines, resistance bands

or even just your own body weight (eg. doing pushups).

The key to successful strength training is to:

- start with supervision from a qualified health or

exercise professional who understands RA

- learn the right way to do the exercises and how

much resistance to add to prevent injury

- keep challenging your muscles by doing different

exercises and using more resistance.

Strength training may also improve the strength of your

bones and help prevent a condition called osteoporosis.

What about during a ‘flare’?

During a ‘flare’ it is usually recommended to rest the

affected joint(s). You should still gently move the

affected joint(s) as far as is comfortable several times

a day as this may help prevent stiffness. However you

should not apply any force or resistance to the affected

area. For example, if your wrist is affected, do not

use any weights or resistance bands with that arm. If

you are feeling otherwise well, you can still do some

gentle exercise for the rest of your body. Talk to your

rheumatologist or physiotherapist for more information

Safety tips

• Check with your doctor or rheumatologist

before starting an exercise program.

• If possible, see a physiotherapist or exercise

physiologist for advice about specific exercises.

They can suggest safe exercises tailored to your

condition and make sure you are doing your

exercises correctly so you don’t cause an injury.

• Always build up slowly. When you first start, do less

than you think you will be able to manage. If you

cope well, do a little bit more next time and keep

building up gradually.

• Always start your exercise by doing some gentle

movements to prepare your muscles and joints for the

activity. This will help prevent pain and injury. You

may find it useful to use heat packs or warm showers

before activity to loosen up stiff joints and muscles.

• Never place your joints under excessive pressure or in

unsafe positions that can increase your risk of injury.

Wherever possible, learn exercises from a qualified

health professional and exercise under supervision.

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