Regular exercise is a must when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). "It's important to keep muscles strong to support the joints, and movement is important to reduce stiffness," says Susan J. Bartlett, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal.
Yoga can be a fun alternative to walking, swimming, biking, and other activities. Exercise, including yoga, helps you maintain a healthy weight and get fit, which in turn takes pressure off your joints. Plus it makes you less likely to get heart disease and diabetes, two conditions that have been linked to rheumatoid arthritis.
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A program of yoga poses, breathing, and relaxation can make a big difference in joint tenderness and swelling, according to the Arthritis Foundation. And the better you feel, the better you'll be able to handle your RA.
How Yoga Helps RA
Yoga is flexible -- literally. "Yoga can be modified in many different ways to help protect your joints and [be] adapted to the specific needs of most individuals," Bartlett says.
So if you're having problems with your wrists, you can make adjustments to protect them. And on those days when your body is telling you to pull back a little, yoga lets you do that.
Yoga has also been shown to boost energy, build positive feelings, and ease anxiety. For people who have an ongoing illness, particularly one that's painful and unpredictable, the mood-boosting impact of yoga is a great bonus. "It really helps with increased stress that goes hand-in-hand with living with a chronic disease," Bartlett says.
"We know that stress worsens RA symptoms and even the disease itself. So it's important to manage stress effectively and to listen to your body," Bartlett says. "When you practice yoga, you learn to listen to and respect your body as it is today, here and now. You learn to focus on yourself and on calming and quieting your body. By doing yoga, you're learning how to relax and let go of muscle tension."
Safe Yoga Practice
To be sure it's safe and beneficial, it's important to choose a gentle type of yoga, such as hatha, anusara, or iyengar. If you're new to yoga, you should avoid power yoga, astanga, bikram or hot yoga, or kundalini.
"Talk with your doctor first to find out if you have any limitations or restrictions related to your joints," Bartlett says. If some joints are more damaged than others, your rheumatologist may want you to be extra careful about how you use them to avoid pain or stiffness.
Learning from an experienced, certified professional is critical. Bartlett recommends finding a yoga instructor with an advanced level of training and experience working with people who have arthritis. (Find one at the Yoga Alliance, yogaalliance.org.) It's not a good idea to do yoga by yourself with a video or the TV guiding you. Let your teacher know about any limitations you may have, before the class starts. They can often offer modifications if some poses are too challenging at first.
Take a gentle approach. If something hurts, don't do it. If you're experiencing an RA flare, listen to your body and adapt your poses, make your yoga session less intense and/or shorter, or wait for another day.