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Rheumatoid Arthritis and Strength Training

How It Helps You Move and Feel Better
WebMD Feature

Strength training is good for you. It builds your muscles and helps protect joints that are affected by arthritis.

“Strength training is something that I recommend across the board to my RA patients,” says Marvin Smith, DPT. He’s a physical therapist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

Put your joints to work to help yourself feel better and do more. Lifting weights on a regular basis curbs pain. It also helps you move better. That will allow you to do activities that may now be tricky for you. Stronger muscles give your joints a break.

“Your instinct may be to protect your joints by limiting your movement, but motion is lotion,” says Eric Robertson, PT. He’s a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association.

Before You Start

First, talk to your physical therapist or rheumatologist. Together, you can make a plan that's safe and works for your level of fitness.

Also let them know what you hope to do and gain from exercise. “We want to make sure [people] set realistic goals that they’ll want to strive towards,” says Smith.

For example, if you want to go hiking or get back to doing something you love, a physical therapist can provide a workout that will help you do that, he says.

To avoid injury, Robertson recommends asking a physical therapist to show you the proper way to lift before you start strength training.

“You need to have good form, especially for your hands and fingers,” he says.

When looking for a personal trainer, ask if they have experience working with people with arthritis. You can check with your rheumatologist or local Arthritis Foundation chapter about exercise programs or classes for people with RA.

A specially fitted splint or brace may also help you lift. An occupational therapist can design one for you, says Smith. He also recommends using foam handles if you use dumbbells.

Lift Off

At the gym, use lighter weights and do more repetitions. Smith recommends the following guidelines to start:

  • Use machines and resistance bands rather than dumbbells.
  • When working your arms and upper body, lift 5% to 10% of your body weight.
  • Lift 25% of your body weight when exercising your leg muscles.
  • Build up to three sets of 15 repetitions for each exercise. (Lift the weight 15 times in a row. Take a small break, and then repeat two more times.)

Your workout should be challenging but not exhausting. Twenty to 30 minutes is all you need.

Rest between workouts. At most, do strength training three times a week, says Robertson. Smith is more conservative. He tells beginners to strength train no more than once every 4 days.

Home Front

You can also work your muscles at home, with or without equipment. Doing squats, push-ups against the wall, lunges, and other exercises that use your own body weight will challenge your muscles and help protect your joints. A physical therapist can show you what exercises to do.  

Resistance bands are an excellent and inexpensive option to use at home. Just be sure to anchor them on the palms of your hands rather than on your fingers to avoid injury, says Robertson.

Exercise Caution

It's normal to be a little sore after a workout. But if you feel pain in your joints while you lift, stop and do a different exercise.

Always do light and slow warm-up stretches before you lift. And, says Robertson, when you have a flare-up, back off your weight routine and go for gentle activity, or give yourself a day off.

Reviewed on October 28, 2013

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