Less Pain, More Energy
It's true: Exercise can help you feel better when you have rheumatoid arthritis. If you sit on the sidelines, you'll lose flexibility. Regular exercise helps reverse joint stiffness, builds muscle, and boosts your overall fitness. In time, you can feel stronger with less fatigue. If you're not active now, see your doctor first, so you know what activities are best for you.
Choose low-impact aerobic exercises like stair climbing, walking, dancing, and low-impact cardio machines, like the elliptical trainer. They are kinder to your joints than high-impact activities, like running or playing basketball.
To do: Start by exercising a few minutes each day. Add more time as you can. Keep a moderate pace and work out for 30 to 60 minutes most days each week.
Strengthen Muscles and Bones
Do resistance exercises two to three times a week for stronger muscles, which will give your joints more support. You'll burn more calories, too.
To do: Use elastic bands, free weights, or machines for resistance. Ask the trainer at your local fitness center, or your physical therapist, to show you how to do each move.
Swimmers, Take Your Mark!
Swim your way to better fitness without straining your joints. The water feels good, too!
To do: Begin slowly with a few minutes in a heated pool. Use a kickboard when you first start to get used to moving in the water. Gradually build to a goal of swimming 30 minutes at a time.
Cardio for Your Ticker
RA makes heart disease more likely. That's all the more reason to exercise. It will make your heart stronger, cut your blood pressure, and improve your cholesterol level.
There's another perk, too. Because bone loss often happens in people with RA, weight-bearing exercise like walking, dancing, and climbing stairs helps prevent osteoporosis.
You tense the muscle, and then relax it. If someone was watching you, they wouldn't see you move at all. If regular strength training is painful on the joints, isometric exercises could be a better-bet option.
Isometric Chest Press
To do: With your arms at chest level, press the palms of your hands together as hard as you can. Hold the press for 5 seconds. Then rest for 5 seconds. Do another 5-second press and a 5-second rest. Do 5 repetitions. Slowly build up to holding the press for 10 to 15 seconds at a time. If this exercise hurts your joints, ask a trainer to show you another isometric chest exercise.
Isometric Shoulder Extension
To do: Stand with your back against a wall and your arms at your sides. With your elbows straight, push your arms back toward the wall. Hold for 5 seconds, and then rest. You can repeat this 10 times. If this exercise hurts your joints, ask a trainer to show you another isometric shoulder exercise.
This exercise strengthens the thigh muscles, which are a major support for the knees.
To do: Sit on the floor or a bed with one leg straight and the other bent. Then tighten the thigh muscles of your straight leg as hard as you can. Keep the thigh muscle tight and count to six. Relax, and then repeat. Do with the opposite leg, gradually increasing up to five, then 10, then 15 repetitions, twice daily with each leg. If this exercise hurts your joints, ask a trainer to show you another isometric thigh exercise.
Stretch for Better Flexibility
Regular stretching helps you move well. To ease pain and stiffness, use moist heat or warm baths before and after stretching exercises. Warm up with light aerobic exercise such as walking for 10 minutes first. Hold stretches for 30 seconds without bouncing or jerking. The stretch should feel good. Keep it gentle, not intense.
Tip: Use a towel to bridge the distance between your hands if you can't comfortably connect them.
Stretch Your Fingers
To do: Close your fingers, making a fist. Then, open and extend the fingers as straight as possible. Repeat this exercise, gradually increasing up to 20 times, twice daily. To make it harder, squeeze a foam or sponge ball about the size of a tennis ball. Release and extend your fingers.
Keep Wrists Flexible
To do: Do this exercise sitting at a table or desk. With your left forearm on the table, let your left hand hang over the edge of the table. Using your right hand, grab the fingers of your left hand and bend your left hand at the wrist, slowly moving it up and then down as far as possible without pain. Repeat with the opposite hand. Increase up to 20 repetitions, twice daily.
Try an Elbow Stretch
To do: With your arm extended, parallel to the floor, position your palm face up. Using your opposite hand, grab hold of the fingers, and pull the palm of the extended hand toward the floor. Hold for 30 seconds. Now, do the same exercise, except this time turn your palm face down. Using the opposite hand, push the top of your extended fingers and hand down toward the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.
Try Hip Rotation
To do: Sit or lie on your back on the floor or on a bed, feet slightly apart. With your legs and knees straight, turn your knees in toward each other and touch the toes of your feet together. Hold for 5 seconds. Now turn your legs and knees out, and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat this, gradually increasing up to five, 10, and then 20 repetitions, twice daily.
Get Flexible Feet
To do: Facing a wall, place your palms flat on the wall, one foot forward, and one foot back. Leaving your heels on the floor, lean forward. As you do so, feel a gentle pull in the calf of your back leg and the Achilles tendon at the back of the ankle. Hold for 30 seconds. Do three repetitions. Then reverse the position of your legs and repeat.
Have You Tried Tai Chi?
It's great for your range of motion, flexibility, and balance. It's also meditative and peaceful, so it's a good way to relax.
Avoid High-Impact Exercise
High-impact exercises, such as jogging, running, or playing tennis on hard pavement, can put too much stress on your joints. Lifting heavy weights may also not be the best form of exercise when you have RA. Want a more intense workout? Talk with your doctor first to see what's OK for you to do.
Balance Rest With Exercise
Pace yourself. During a flare, you need short periods of rest. This doesn't mean bed rest, unless your doctor recommends it. Too much inactivity weakens muscles and can make joint pain worse.
Consider a Personal Trainer
She can tailor your workout plan to meet your needs. Tell her about your RA and any limitations you have. There are often ways to adjust an exercise so it's OK for you to do.