Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Topic Overview

Exercise can reduce pain and improve function in people who haverheumatoid arthritis(RA). Also, exercise may help prevent the buildup of scar tissue, which can lead to weakness and stiffness. Exercise for arthritis takes three forms: stretching, strengthening, and conditioning.

Stretching involves moving joint and muscle groups through and slightly beyond their normal range of motion and holding them in position for at least 15 to 30 seconds. See pictures of variousstretches. If stretching is uncomfortable, try to at least move every joint through its full range of motion every day.

Strengthening involves moving muscles against some resistance. Strengthening exercise helps people who have rheumatoid arthritis stay more active and able to do their daily activities, and it even seems to help their outlook.footnote 1There are two types of strengthening exercises:

  • Isometric strengthening is simply tightening a muscle or holding it against the resistance of gravity or an immovable object without moving the joint. For example:
    • Tighten the front thigh muscle of the leg.
    • Push the wrist up against the undersurface of a table.
  • Isotonic strengthening means moving a joint through its range of motion against the resistance of a weight or gravity. For example:
    • Put a3 lb (1.4 kg) weight on your ankle and then bend and straighten your knee.
    • Lift free weights.

See pictures ofbasic muscle-strengthening exercisesandmuscle-strengthening with free weights.

Conditioning exercise improves aerobic fitness. Conditioning exercise is safe for people whose rheumatoid arthritis is under control. It may help reduce pain and help you stay more active.footnote 2Conditioning, or aerobic, exercises include walking, biking, swimming, orwater exercise. A target heart rate can guide you to how hard you should exercise so you can get the most aerobic benefit from your workout.

Use thisInteractive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?

Target heart rate is only a guide. Each individual is different, so pay attention to how you feel while you exercise.

Note that even moderate activity, such as walking, can improve your health and may prevent disability from rheumatoid arthritis.

Pay special attention to your hands if you have rheumatoid arthritis. If your hands are stiff and sore, it's hard to do your daily activities. See pictures of some basic hand exercisesto help you stay strong and flexible.

Be sure to follow your doctor's advice about your exercise program. For most people, physical activity does not pose any problem or hazard. For some people, some forms of physical activity might be unsafe or should be started only after talking with a doctor. See a list ofexercise cautionsto consider before starting any exercise or fitness program.

For more information on exercise, see the topicFitness.

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.
Interactive tools are designed to help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more.

References

Citations

  1. O'Dell JR (2013). Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. In GS Firestein et al., eds., Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1137-1160. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  2. Baillet A, et al. (2010). Efficacy of cardiorespiratory aerobic exercise in rheumatoid arthritis: Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arthritis Care and Research, 62(7): 984-992.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerNancy Ann Shadick, MD, MPH - Rheumatology

Current as ofOctober 10, 2017