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RA and Exercise: Getting Fit at Home and With Your Family

Easy moves to try at home to help fight pain.
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WebMD Feature

When Melinda Winner was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), she was overwhelmed by depression.

“I laid around the house eating,” says Winner, now the author of A Complete Guide to Living with Arthritis. “The more I laid, the more depressed I became, and the bigger I became, and with the weight and lack of movement came more pain.”

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Young Adults Living With RA

Last winter, after spending a few afternoons shoveling snow, Heather Miceli, 27, woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get out of bed. “My joints had swelled up so much that I couldn’t move without crying,” she says. Two months later, the college professor at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., who had always been healthy, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) -- a debilitating autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and swelling in the joints and surrounding tissues,...

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In a little over a year, Winner gained 100 pounds, weight she kept on for the next three years. Then one day, her 3-year-old kept begging her to get down on the floor and play cars. “I knew if I got down there, getting back up was not an option,” she says. “As I sat there having a huge pity party, I knew it was move or die. That very day I began to walk very slowly. Maybe it was only 50 feet that first day, but I was determined to change my life, and every day I walked a few steps farther.”

As she got stronger, Winner, who couldn’t afford a gym membership or YMCA pass, devised her own exercise program that involved everything from water exercises in the bathtub to home resistance training. “The more I move, the better I feel,” she says.

As Winner discovered, if you have RA, exercise isn’t just about looking good in a cocktail dress or taking off baby weight. It can reduce your pain and help you function better as you do all the million tasks your household requires each day. Plus, it can just plain make you feel better, which is invaluable when a chronic disease like RA is dragging you down. Exercise can also help reduce your risk of osteoporosis, which is a big issue for women with RA, especially if you’re taking steroids to fight inflammation.

Keri Cawthorne is a personal trainer so when she developed RA a year ago, fitness was already an enormous part of her life. But she found that she had to modify her routine because arthritis can make some moves challenging.

Functional Fitness for RA

“I’m focused a lot on functional fitness,” Cawthorne says. That means exercise that strengthens the body to do real-life work in real-life ways, rather than just lifting certain weights on the machines you use at the gym. Functional exercise uses multiple muscles at once, helping them work together in harmony. Balance is at the heart of functional fitness.

“I’m fairly fit, but I’ve had to go back to the basics, such as balancing on one foot and then the other,” Cawthorne says. "I also have to watch my form and make sure that if I’m using a weight, my wrists are in line and I’m using the right muscle groups and not just powering through a move.”

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