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Can I Exercise If I Have Rheumatoid Arthritis?

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Yes, you can! Being active is one of the best things you can do for yourself, even if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). You just have to know how to work within your limits. Your doctor or a physical therapist can help you with that.

When you make fitness a regular part of your life, the benefits include:

  • Less pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Stronger bones. This is important because RA can thin your bones, especially if you take steroids.
  • You’ll move better and have more energy.
  • It’s good for your heart and all your other muscles.

What’s OK for Me to Do?

If you don’t exercise now, check with your doctor first. Tell her what you want to do, and ask what types of things will be best for you and what you should avoid.

You may also want to consult with a physical therapist to make a safe, effective workout plan.

Your plan will likely include low-impact activities, like walking, swimming, bicycling, or using an elliptical machine. Any of these will get your heart pumping. You’ll hear this called “cardio” or aerobic exercise.

Strength training uses resistance to work your muscles. You can use machines at a gym, hand-held weights, resistance bands, or even your own body weight. It strengthens muscles and increases the amount of activity you can do. Your physical therapist can show you what to do, tell you how often to do each exercise, and let you know how hard you should work when you work out.

Stretching exercises should be gentle. Never stretch a muscle that’s not warmed up. Ask your physical therapist how and when you should stretch.

After your doctor says OK, try to do 20 to 30 minutes (or more) of low-impact conditioning exercise on as many days as you feel you can. Remember, some is better than none!

Activities That May Be Too Much for Your Joints

Be careful about activities that put a lot of stress on a joint, or are "high-impact," such as:

It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor first.

Your rheumatologist can help you create an exercise program that is right for you. This may also involve meeting with a physical therapist. Physical therapists can identify what areas you need to work on, choose the right exercises for you, and tell you how vigorously you should exercise.

There are also community exercise programs designed for people with arthritis. These include People with Arthritis Can Exercise (PACE) and the Arthritis Self Help Course (ASHC), which the Arthritis Foundation offers.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 11, 2014
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