People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who exercise may experience less pain than those who don’t. Exercise can reduce painful symptoms, improve joint function and flexibility, increase range of motion and boost mood.
It is best to seek medical advice before starting any exercise program and work with a doctor and allied healthcare provider to develop a tailored exercise plan.
Arthritis and rheumatic disease are leading causes of pain and disability. Arthritis, or osteoarthritis, is a common, chronic disorder of the joints that mainly affects older people. In healthy joints, cartilage covers the joint’s surface and helps absorb shock and allows for smooth movement.
For people with arthritis, the cartilage has broken down, leaving the ends of the bone unprotected. The joint loses its ability to move smoothly. The most common joints affected by arthritis are hips, knees, big toes, spine and hands. (1)
Things to remember:
- Focus on low-intensity and low-duration when starting an exercise program
- Avoid strenuous exercises during acute flares and periods of inflammation
- Make sure you allow plenty of time to warm up at a low-intensity level
- Progression in the duration of activity should be emphasised over increased intensity
- The benefits of exercise are lost if the training stops; use strategies to help with program continuation
- Joint range may be restricted due to arthritic changes in the joint and swelling. Don’t push through those restrictions. Over time, the range of motion should gradually be increased by working to the full extent of range tolerated
- A little bit of soreness during exercise is normal. However, if there is significant pain or swelling during or after exercise, the exercise program may need to be revised.
Best exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis pain
The following types of exercise may help relieve the pain, joint stiffness and other symptoms that RA can cause: (2)
1. Stretching – Stretching can help improve flexibility, reduce stiffness and increase range of motion. Stretching daily is important for relieving RA symptoms.
2. Walking – Walking is a low-impact exercise that can help with aerobic conditioning, heart and joint health and mood.
3. Flowing movements, such as tai chi and yoga – Both tai chi and yoga combine deep breathing, flowing movements, gentle poses and meditation. They increase flexibility, balance, and range of motion while also reducing stress.
4. Pilates – Pilates is a low-impact activity that can increase flexibility for enhanced joint health.
5. Water exercises – Water helps support body weight by minimising gravity, which means that water exercises do not heavily impact the joints.
6. Cycling – As RA increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, it is vital to keep the heart as healthy as possible. Cycling can help improve cardiovascular function.