In addition to medication, exercise is one of best treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. This may be frustrating to hear, since RA joint pain and fatigue can make physical activity seem unappealing. It can help to understand how physical activity helps reduce RA symptoms and how to exercise safely.
Exercise Reduces RA Joint Pain
Research shows exercise reduces RA-related joint pain. It does this by reducing the underlying cause of pain: inflammation. Exercise tends to lower the amount of C-reactive protein and other signs of inflammation in the blood.3,7
Exercise Increases Joint Strength and Flexibility
People with RA tend to have less muscle mass than others, even when their body weights are the same.1 Exercise helps build and maintain muscle strength.
Exercises that get joints moving, combined with gentle stretching, can also help maintain or increase joint flexibility. When joints are strong and flexible, the body is more stable. Keeping balance and doing everyday tasks are easier.
Exercise Reduces Fatigue and Depression
Chronic autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, increase the likelihood of experiencing fatigue and depression. Research studies suggest exercise helps counteract depression8-12 and RA-related fatigue.13,14
Exercise Reduces the Risk of Heart Disease
Rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of developing heart disease by about 50%.15 Experts believe the body-wide inflammation linked to RA can damage the heart and blood vessels.
Exercise is a great way to fight heart disease, whether RA has been diagnosed or not.
Guidelines for Exercising with RA
There are no specific recommendations for how much exercise people with RA or other autoimmune diseases need. Instead, experts recommend that almost everyone follow these general guidelines:16
- Get a total of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week. Workout time can be spread out—for example, 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week. Any physical activity that gets the heart beating faster than normal counts as moderate aerobic exercise.
- Doing vigorous aerobic exercise for at least 75 minutes each week is okay, too. Sweating, breathing harder, an increased heart rate, and muscle fatigue are signs of vigorous exercise.17
- In addition to aerobic exercise, do strength exercises that build muscles at least 2 days a week.
Some strength exercises require equipment, such as weights and resistance bands. Other exercises, such as squats, hip bridges, and many yoga poses, use a person’s own body weight for resistance. When doing strength exercises, slow, controlled movements can help build muscle and guard against injury.
Adjust recommended guidelines for individual ability
The above guidelines are only recommendations. If 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week is too easy, increase the length or intensity of workouts. If 150 minutes a week is too challenging, begin with a smaller weekly goal and gradually increase it.
In general, any amount of aerobic exercise is better than none.
When Exercise Makes RA Pain Worse
Joints may feel uncomfortable or mildly painful during exercise, particularly early in a workout, while the body is warming up. Typically, pain levels return to normal after working out.
If pain remains or becomes worse after a workout, it is a sign that the workout should be changed or scaled back. A physical therapist or trained physician can work with an individual one-on-one and help customize a safe workout plan.
Pain caused by physical activity may prompt a physician to recommend increasing medication dosage or trying a new medication. They may also recommend lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eliminating certain foods, managing stress, or improving sleep habits.