Make an Exercise Plan for RA

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 12, 2024
4 min read

What can you do to feel better when you're stiff, sore, and tired?

Give exercise a try. It might sound crazy at first, but a workout can boost your energy and make you more flexible.

Once you take the first steps, you'll be on your way to reaping the benefits. You, and your joints, will be glad you did.

Activity helps to cut the swelling and pain in your joints, and it strengthens your muscles. Exercise, especially the weight-bearing kind, like walking, makes your bones stronger and helps prevent osteoporosis. Many women get weaker bones after menopause, but it's more common for those who have RA and take steroids to treat inflammation.

Aerobic exercise, the kind that makes your heart pump faster, can help you control your weight. It also helps protect against heart disease, another condition you're more likely to get if you have RA.

Moving around also leads to a better night’s sleep. That helps you manage the stress and depression that can come with rheumatoid arthritis.

You know that you should exercise, but what makes you get up and do it? These tips can lead to success:

  • Start slowly.
  • Set a goal: Maybe you want to lose a few pounds, get in better shape for a trip, or walk a 5K.
  • Set small targets that will get you to your larger goal.
  • Chart your progress.
  • Reward yourself when you meet each milestone.

Get off to a good start with this strategy:

Talk to your doctor. Ask what kind of exercise is best for you. They’ll let you know if there are activities you should skip. For instance, if you have inflammation in your shoulder, you may want to bike or walk instead of swim.

Keep it real. If you don’t know where to begin or feel you don’t have much time to exercise, start with 5 minutes. The next day, try to do a minute more, and so on. But if you're raring to go, be careful not to overdo it at first. It's less important where you start than where you end up.

Make it easy. If it’s a hassle to get to a gym, work out at home or in your neighborhood. But if you like the energy of a fitness center, try to find one that isn’t off your beaten path. You’re more likely to stop in if you pass it every day.

Get help to get going. If you can, get advice from a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or a trainer who has experience with arthritis. They can teach you how to gauge your body's response so you don't overdo it, end up in pain, and get discouraged.

The simple answer: the one you'll actually do. So pick something you like or would like to try, as long as it doesn’t bother your joints. An ideal program has three types of exercise:

  • Aerobics with low to medium impact on your joints. Swimming, biking, walking, dance, and warm-water exercise are all good choices. An elliptical machine can build stamina and energy.
  • Strength training. Lift light weights (1-2 pounds) or use a resistance band to build or maintain muscle mass and strength to keep your joints stable.
  • Flexibility exercises. A workout that moves your joints and stretches your muscles can ease your stiffness and help you avoid injuries. Whatever activity you do, warm up first and stretch afterward.

If you're new to exercise, start out with a warm-water aerobics class. The water can soothe sore joints.

It's important to be consistent. Build up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, five times a week. You can break it down into three 10-minute sessions a day if that's easier.

Do flexibility exercises every day. Follow them with strengthening exercises every other day. It's OK to rest if you have joint pain or get tired. Avoid moves that call for fast or repeated movements that hurt your joints.

Walking is one of the easiest exercises to do -- all you need is a pair of supportive shoes. If you're wondering how to get started, check out the Arthritis Foundation's Walking Workout. It has weekly timelines for beginning, intermediate, and advanced walkers. Get details on the Arthritis Foundation website.

A workout in a group or with friends can help you stay motivated when your get-up-and-go wants to go on strike. A class can help you make some new friends who understand what you're going through. Through its local chapters, the Arthritis Foundation offers an exercise program for people with arthritis.

The best thing you can do is listen to your body. If you don't feel well enough to bump up your walking pace or distance one week, stick with the pace from the week before. If you don’t feel your best, change the activity. If your joints are swollen or painful, take a day off. Or choose a move that you can manage. The important thing is to keep moving.