The recommendation to get regular exercise if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is backed up by plenty of scientific research. Experts say there are at least 4 ways exercise may help ease the signs and symptoms of RA.
1. Exercise reduces inflammation
Regular exercise tends to lower inflammation levels in the body. Inflammation is measured using blood tests that check for inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR). Test results for these markers tend to be high during an RA flare and low when RA is well controlled. Studies show that exercise helps lower inflammatory markers.1-5
Exercise may affect RA inflammation levels in a few ways2:
- Exercise promotes anti-inflammatory responses in the body. Exercise causes muscle cells in the body to release chemicals called anti-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are tiny protein molecules that act as messengers among cells and tell the immune system what to do.
- Exercise suppresses pro-inflammatory responses in the body. Inflammation is caused by an over-active immune system. Exercise can help tamp-down immune system activity.
- Exercise helps reduce excess fat tissue, which promotes inflammation. Fat tissue can release substances that promote inflammation, such as certain hormones and pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Some experts suspect that exercise can reduce fat tissue’s pro-inflammatory effects even if you don’t lose weight.6 How exercise influences inflammation and RA disease activity continues to be researched.
Lowering inflammation levels in the body can ease RA disease activity as well as reduce the signs and symptoms of other diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
2. Exercise helps build back lost muscle
As RA develops, the body loses muscle tissue and strength. This loss is noticeable at every stage of the disease—at diagnosis, when RA is active, and even when RA is in remission.7 Body weight may remain stable or even increase,8 suggesting that while muscle tissue decreases, fat tissue increases.
Adding exercise to a treatment plan can:
- Build muscle tissue. While muscle tissue accounts for about 45% of body mass in healthy people, it typically accounts for less body mass in people with rheumatoid arthritis.4 Exercise helps increase muscle mass.
- Improve joint function. Muscles move our joints. Exercise to build muscle tissue can improve how well your joints work (joint function).
- Protect joints. Muscles support joints. Building muscle helps protect joints from damage and injury.
Strength exercises may involve equipment, such as weights or resistance bands. Exercises that use body weight, such as squats and certain yoga poses, can also build muscle strength.9
3. Exercise lowers the risk of heart disease
People with rheumatoid arthritis are 48% more likely to develop heart disease than the general population.10 RA inflammation is thought to damage the heart and blood vessels.
Exercise reduces the risk of heart disease by:
- Lowering inflammation that can damage the heart and blood vessels
- Burning excess fat, which may contribute to heart disease
No matter what, exercise is a great way to fight heart disease—whether RA has been diagnosed or not.
4. Exercise eases symptoms of fatigue and depression
People with chronic autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are more likely to feel depressed and fatigued. Exercise can help reduce both depression11-15 and fatigue16,17 in people who have chronic diseases.
Research suggests there are a few possible reasons why exercise helps. Exercising:
- Releases chemicals in the body, such as endorphins and dopamine, which can help improve your mood and reduce sleepiness
- Reduces body-wide inflammation, which is linked to depression and fatigue
- Gives you a sense of accomplishment and control over RA symptoms
While depression and fatigue may not completely go away with exercise, they may decrease and become less noticeable.