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Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis - Topic Overview

Exercise can reduce pain and improve function in people who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Also, exercise may help prevent the buildup of scar tissue, which can lead to weakness and stiffness. Exercise for arthritis takes three forms: stretching, strengthening, and conditioning.

Stretching involves moving joint and muscle groups through and slightly beyond their normal range of motion and holding them in position for at least 15 to 30 seconds. See pictures of various stretches slideshow.gif. If stretching is uncomfortable, try to at least move every joint through its full range of motion every day.

Strengthening involves moving muscles against some resistance. Strengthening exercise helps people who have rheumatoid arthritis stay more active and able to do their daily activities, and it even seems to help their outlook.1 There are two types of strengthening exercises:

  • Isometric strengthening is simply tightening a muscle or holding it against the resistance of gravity or an immovable object without moving the joint. For example:
    • Tighten the front thigh muscle of the leg.
    • Push the wrist up against the undersurface of a table.
  • Isotonic strengthening means moving a joint through its range of motion against the resistance of a weight or gravity. For example:
    • Put a 3 lb (1.4 kg) weight on your ankle and then bend and straighten your knee.
    • Lift free weights.

See pictures of basic muscle-strengthening exercises slideshow.gif and muscle-strengthening with free weights slideshow.gif.

Conditioning exercise improves aerobic fitness. Conditioning exercise is safe for people whose rheumatoid arthritis is under control. It may help reduce pain and help you stay more active.2 Conditioning, or aerobic, exercises include walking, biking, swimming, or water exercise. A target heart rate can guide you to how hard you should exercise so you can get the most aerobic benefit from your workout.

Use this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?

Target heart rate is only a guide. Each individual is different, so pay attention to how you feel while you exercise.

Note that even moderate activity, such as walking, can improve your health and may prevent disability from rheumatoid arthritis.

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