Strength training is good for you. It builds your muscles and helps support and protect joints that are affected by arthritis.
“I recommend [it] across the board to my RA patients,” says Marvin Smith, DPT, a physical therapist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
Make it a habit, and you could have less pain. It also helps you move better. That will allow you to do activities that may now be tricky for you.
“Your instinct may be to protect your joints by limiting your movement, but motion is lotion,” says Eric Robertson, PT, a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association.
Before You Start
First, talk to your physical therapist or rheumatologist. Together, you can make a plan that's safe and works for your level of fitness.
Also let them know what you hope to do and gain from exercise. “We want to make sure [people] set realistic goals that they’ll want to strive towards,” Smith says.
For example, if you want to go hiking or get back to doing something you love, a physical therapist can provide a workout that will help you do that, he says.
To avoid get injured, Robertson recommends asking a physical therapist to show you the proper way to lift before you start strength training. “You need to have good form, especially for your hands and fingers,” he says.
When you look for a personal trainer, ask if they have experience working with people who have arthritis. You can check with your rheumatologist or local Arthritis Foundation chapter about exercise programs or classes for people with RA.
A specially fitted splint or brace may also help you lift. An occupational therapist can design one for you, Smith says. He also recommends using foam handles if you use dumbbells.
At the gym, use lighter weights and do more repetitions. Smith recommends the following guidelines to start:
- Use machines and resistance bands rather than dumbbells.
- When working your arms and upper body, lift 5% to 10% of your body weight.
- Lift 25% of your body weight when exercising your leg muscles.
- Build up to three sets of 15 repetitions for each exercise. (Lift the weight 15 times in a row. Take a small break, and then repeat two more times.)
Your workout should challenge but not exhaust you. Twenty to 30 minutes is all you need.
Rest between workouts. At most, do strength training three times a week, Robertson says. Smith is more conservative. He tells beginners to strength train no more than once every 4 days.
You can also work your muscles at home, with or without equipment. Doing squats, push-ups against the wall, lunges, and other exercises that use your own body weight will challenge your muscles and help protect your joints. A physical therapist can show you what moves to do.
Resistance bands are an excellent, inexpensive option to use at home. Anchor them on the palms of your hands rather than on your fingers to avoid injury, Robertson says.
It's normal to be a little sore after a workout. But if you feel pain in your joints while you lift, stop and do a different exercise.
Always do light and slow warm-up stretches before you lift. When your RA flares up, back off your weight routine and go for gentle activities -- or give yourself a day off.