Just because you have rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t mean you have to sit out of yoga class or pass up the elliptical machine. Get tips to exercise properly and safely with RA.
It can be tough getting those stiff and creaky joints out of bed in the morning when you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis. And pulling yourself out of bed just to hit the gym or the pavement for some exercise seems like an even better reason to just pull the covers over your head. It’s no wonder that 53 percent fewer people with arthritis get physical activity compared with people who don’t have arthritis, according to the latest government statistics.
But having rheumatoid arthritis is no excuse to skip out on exercise — in fact, exercise can really help improve your joint pain and joint stiffness. But you do need to make some modifications to make sure that you’re helping, not hurting, your joints.
When you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis, your joints can be stiff, achy, and painful. So high-impact sports and exercises can be uncomfortable and harmful for your joints.
“It is important for RA patients to modify exercises to avoid unnecessary stress on the joints and the ligaments that support them,” says Karen J. Green, a physical therapist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
“The goal of adapting exercises is to decrease stress at the ends of the joint motion, reduce pain, and maximize the benefits of exercise while decreasing potential barriers,” explains Green.
Low-Impact Exercises for RA
The lower-impact the exercise, the better. So find ways to tone down the stress on your joints in any exercise you do.
“Many common exercise routines are safe and effective for RA patients — with minor modifications,” says Green. She suggests opting for exercises that are already low-impact, such as:
- Weight training
The following aerobic exercises are low-impact — and they won’t stress your joints:
- Ride an exercise bike.
- Work out on an elliptical machine.
- Go for a swim or try water aerobics.
- Take a brisk walk.
These exercises already take it easy on your joints — but you may still need to modify them a bit. “The key modification strategy for any exercise program is to listen to your body and avoid stressing your joints at the end of your available range of motion,” says Green.
When you’ve given your body a good workout, it’s okay to be a little sore. But “you should not push your body into painful movements or motions,” she adds. Push your joints just within the range of motion that’s comfortable for you every day — and know that limit may be different than it was the day before.
“The amount of comfortable motion available may change from day to day,” says Green. And if you find that your rheumatoid arthritis pain worsens, “respect your symptoms,” she adds. Allow yourself an easier day so that you don’t aggravate joint pain and joint swelling — but don’t give up and quit.
Exercise Modifications for RA
Whether you’re lifting weights or working out at the gym on a machine, Green says that there are a couple of modifications to keep in mind to achieve a good rheumatoid arthritis exercise:
- Try to exercise your larger body parts and muscles (such as your forearms and elbows) instead of smaller ones (such as your wrist, fingers, and hands).
- Don’t exercise to the point of discomfort. You want to feel a nice stretching sensation, not pain.
- Pay attention to the signals your body sends you.
- Decrease the intensity of your workouts if you feel joint pain or soreness.
If you have certain joints that are the weakest, push those less and focus on your stronger joints. Also remember to work joints all over your body; cycle through your exercises so that everything gets a chance to move without overdoing repetitive movements and causing an injury.
And finally: “Keep it up,” says Green. “The benefits of regular exercise far outweigh the risks for most people.”
When you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis, exercise is no picnic. But getting regular exercise can improve rheumatoid arthritis pain and joint swelling, so getting out of bed each morning is a little easier — no matter what your morning holds.