Can I Exercise if I Have Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 12, 2022
3 min read

Yes, you can! Being active is one of the best things you can do for your health, 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.

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

  • Better flexibility. Moving your joints helps relieve stiffness and keeps them flexible.
  • Stronger muscles. Exercise strengthens your muscles, which helps them support and protect your joints.
  • Denser bones. Arthritis-related inflammation, and some of the drugs that treat it, can make your bones more fragile and more likely to break. Working out boosts bone density, which could mean fewer fractures.
  • A healthier heart. Exercise is good for everyone's ticker. If you have RA, that's especially important, since the condition makes you more likely to get heart disease.
  • Feeling better. A good workout eases pain, boosts your mood, gives you more energy, helps you sleep better, and can make you feel better about yourself. Exercise with a friend to make it more fun and to motivate each other.

Your rheumatologist can help you create an exercise program that is right for you. You may also meet with a physical therapist. They can identify what areas you need to work on, choose the right exercises for you, and tell you how hard 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.

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

Your exercise plan will probably include low-impact activities such as:

  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Dancing
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Bicycling
  • Using an elliptical machine

Any of these will get your heart pumping. You’ll hear this called cardio or aerobic exercise. Picking something you enjoy will help you succeed.

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. This makes muscles stronger and increases the amount of activity you can do.

It’ll take time to get stronger. Make your strength training workouts harder over time. Do them every other day if you can. If you're new to weightlifting, book a few sessions with a physical therapist or a trainer for pointers.

You can also do stretching exercises, but they 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 gives the OK, try to do 20 to 30 minutes (or more) of low-impact conditioning exercise on as many days as you feel up to it. Remember, some exercise is better than none!

Be careful about activities that put a lot of stress on a joint or are "high-impact," such as lifting heavy weights or jogging, especially on paved roads.

Most experts agree that if exercise causes pain that lasts for more than 1 hour, it’s too much. Check with your doctor or physical therapist if you notice: