Arthritis-Friendly Workouts to Keep You Moving

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on November 28, 2013
3 min read

Aerobic exercise -- like swimming, using cardio machines at the gym, or simply going for a brisk walk -- is not only possible when you have rheumatoid arthritis, it’s good for you, too. It's great for your heart and lungs, and it also:

  • Helps you move better
  • Makes everyday activities easier
  • Lifts your mood
  • May lower joint pain
  • Boosts bone density

“I highly encourage all my patients to do some form of exercise," says physical therapist Jan Richardson, PT, PhD, OCS, an emeritus professor at Duke University School of Medicine.

If you don't exercise now, talk to your physical therapist or doctor to make a plan that's right for you.

Physical therapist Kathleen Wasowski, DPT, OCS, has people set specific rather than general goals.

“Decide what you want to be able to do, for how long, and how often,” says Wasowski, who practices at Stanford Hospital and Clinics in Palo Alto, CA. “Start with something that you can do consistently and build on your success.”

For example, if you want to aim for a 30-minute lunchtime walk three times a week, but you haven't exercised in a while, start with 5-minute walks. Then gradually work your way up, adding another minute or 2 each week.

Wasowki also says you can divide your exercise time into chunks rather than doing it all at once, if you’re feeling tired. Three walks of 10 minutes each can be as good as a single 30-minute walk.

Stick with low-impact exercises, and avoid those that put extra stress on your joints.

Stair-climber machines, for example, can really strain your knees. If you’re at the gym, try a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer instead.

Water aerobics is another excellent choice. The resistance of your body pushing against the water builds strength and balance, Richardson says. As a bonus, there’s little or no impact on your joints, since the water supports your body weight.

She also recommends tai chi: “Studies show that the very controlled motions are very good for RA, and that people with RA tend to stay with it for a long time." There may be classes near you at a community center or your local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation.

Remember, choose something you enjoy. That way, you'll want to do it.

Exercise with a friend to make it more fun. You can encourage each other to stick with it. You might find a workout buddy at an RA support group.

When you get fit with a friend or take an exercise class, don't compare yourself to anyone else. Focus on how you feel, not what the person next to you can do. Are you closer to your personal goal? Did you improve compared to what you did earlier in the week?

If you don’t feel your best, that’s OK, too. Getting moving is a victory. Ask the instructor to show you how to modify the workout to suit you better. For example, if your knees bother you, your instructor may have ways to change the workout so you use your knees less.

If you have a flare, you might tell yourself that exercise will only make it worse. That’s not always true, Richardson says. It may help you feel better if you’re having a mild flare.

Water exercises are especially good since they're gentle, she says.

But you know your body best. “If you have an awful day, do less,” Wasowski says. Some days the best thing is rest.

Even during flares, if you can’t do aerobic exercise, you should try simple range-of-motion exercises. For example, open and close your fists, or bend and straighten your knees. Talk with a physical therapist to learn about range-of-motion exercises that may help you.

If you’re new to exercise, expect your muscles to be tired and sore for a day or so after your workout.

But if you feel pain in your joints, you may be doing too much, or you might need to work on your technique. Stop that particular exercise, and talk to your physical therapist or a personal trainer to learn how to correct your form.

Listen your body. “Pain can be your friend,” Richardson says. “It tells you when you are overdoing it.”