Regular exercise makes a big difference when you have rheumatoid arthritis. "It's important to keep muscles strong to support the joints, and movement is important to reduce stiffness," says Susan J. Bartlett, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal.
Yoga can be a fun alternative to walking, swimming, biking, and other activities. Like any other type of exercise, yoga helps you stay at a healthy weight and get stronger, which in turn takes pressure off your joints. Being fit also makes you less likely to get heart disease and diabetes, two conditions that are more common if you have rheumatoid arthritis.
A program of yoga poses, breathing, and relaxation can make a big difference in joint tenderness and swelling, according to the Arthritis Foundation. And the better you feel, the better you'll be able to handle your RA.
How It Helps
This type of exercise is flexible -- literally. "Yoga can be modified in many different ways to help protect your joints and [be] adapted to the specific needs of most individuals," Bartlett says.
So if you have problems with your wrists, you can make adjustments to protect them. And on those days when your body tells you to pull back a little, yoga lets you do that.
It's also been shown to boost energy, build positive feelings, and ease anxiety. For people who have an ongoing illness, particularly one that's painful and unpredictable, the mood-boosting impact of yoga is a great bonus. "It really helps with increased stress that goes hand-in-hand with living with a chronic disease," Bartlett says.
"We know that stress worsens RA symptoms and even the disease itself. So it's important to manage stress effectively and to listen to your body," she says. "When you practice yoga, you learn to listen to and respect your body as it is today, here and now. You learn to focus on yourself and on calming and quieting your body. By doing yoga, you're learning how to relax and let go of muscle tension."
Choose a gentle type of yoga, such as hatha, Anusara, or Iyengar. If you're just starting out, you should avoid power yoga, Ashtanga, Bikram or hot yoga, or Kundalini.
"Talk with your doctor first to find out if you have any limitations or restrictions related to your joints," Bartlett says. If some joints are more damaged than others, your rheumatologist may want you to be extra careful about how you use them to avoid pain or stiffness.
Learn from an experienced, certified professional. Bartlett recommends you find a yoga instructor with an advanced level of training and experience working with people who have arthritis. (Find one at the Yoga Alliance.) It's not a good idea to do yoga by yourself with a video or the TV guiding you. Let your teacher know about any limitations you may have before the class starts. They can often offer modifications if some poses are too challenging at first.
Take a gentle approach. If something hurts, don't do it. If you're having an RA flare, listen to your body and adapt your poses, make your session less intense or shorter, or wait for another day.
Research on yoga for RA is in the early stages. While some studies have shown promising results with better joint health, physical ability, and mental and emotional well-being, the studies were small in size and scope.
Bartlett did a study to see if yoga was safe and effective for people with the disease, and if they felt better when doing it regularly.
After 8 weeks of doing hatha yoga (twice a week with an instructor and once a week at home), people said they felt much better, both physically and mentally. There were no bad side effects: No one had to stop doing yoga, and no one got worse.
Bartlett says the study was a good first step. She's optimistic that future research will support her findings. "For many of the people in our study, as they gained confidence in their ability to exercise and listen to their body, they felt more able to try more and different kinds of activities," she says. Some said it changed their life, their relationship with their body, and how they felt about having RA.
The people in the study "enjoyed doing yoga," Bartlett says. "In fact, many of them continued to do it long after the study had ended."