Is exercise essential for rheumatoid arthritis?


Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic disease which usually causes joint inflammation leading to severe joint and muscle pain, and low muscle strength. The symptoms usually make the patients not able to be active in physical activities. The physical inactivity for a long period of time can further accelerate the progression of the disease. Physical activity generally helps human beings to live a healthier and a longer life compared to those who are not involved in physical activities. To patients of rheumatoid arthritis living a sedentary lifestyle can also lead to several other health risks. Some of these risks include cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and osteoporosis. It is advisable to encourage patients of rheumatoid arthritis to take part in physical activities.

People who have rheumatoid arthritis and exercise regularly will experience less pain, improved sleep, have more energy and better day to day function compared to those who do not exercise. There are several exercises which can be helpful to patients of rheumatoid arthritis. These exercises help in reducing pain that is experienced and making the patients flexible causing a reduction in stiffness. Some of these exercises include:

i. Low impact aerobic exercises

  • These exercises are good for people with rheumatoid arthritis. This is because these kinds of exercises put minimal impact on the affected joints.
  • Some of these exercises include walking, water exercises, low impact aerobic dance and stationery bicycle.
  • Exercises that have sudden stops, changes in direction such as basketball and soccer are not appropriate. In cases where you have no knee ankle and hip problems jogging can also be helpful.

ii. Stretching exercises

You can start by stretching before starting your exercise. This helps in preparing the muscles and joints for the activity. For example if you are going to jog you can stretch your knees, hips and ankles. You can also do stretching after you are done with the exercise. This helps in preventing stiffness. You can also improvise some form of exercises that can help in reducing stiffness in particular joints that experience limited motion.

iii. Tai Chi

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese practice that usually involve sets of slow flowing movements and this form of practice usually emphasize on mental focus, physical motions and regular breathing. Tai Chi is designed to improve the quality of life, sense of relaxation and mobility. Patients of rheumatoid arthritis can benefit from this exercise because it reduces stiffness and improves strength and balance.

iv. Resistance exercises

Resistance exercises help in strengthening the muscles. Strengthening the muscles can be done using resistance tools such as free weight, elastic bands and machines. In resistance exercises some may be better than others this is usually because of particular needs of the patients. For example free weights can be better than machines; this is because they don’t force the joints into a specific predetermined movement pattern.

v. Weight-bearing exercises

Patients of rheumatoid arthritis have a high risk of bone thinning. This condition can result to osteoporosis and can also be caused by the medication used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Weight bearing exercises can be helpful in preserving bones. An example of a good weight bearing exercise is walking.

vi. Swimming

Swimming helps people who have rheumatoid arthritis to reduce the amount of stress on the joints. This is because water supports the body. Walking in a pool can also be helpful. The efforts you put while trying to walk in the water makes your muscles strong. You can do this by walking in water that is up to your waist or chest or you can alternatively put on a flotation belt then walk in deep end water.

Before you start any kind of exercise you should get the right intensity. You can talk with your physical therapist or a trainer who has experience helping people with rheumatoid arthritis so that you can know what is best for you. Generally people with rheumatoid arthritis should avoid exercising too hard.

You should also choose an exercise that you enjoy. This will help you not to miss exercises on days you are supposed to exercise.

You should find an appropriate time when to exercise. This will help you to establish a routine and also get you great benefits. You can also schedule your exercise depending with your condition. For the people who have morning stiffness, exercising in the morning can be helpful. For people who have fatigue breaking up the exercise time into several bouts can help you manage the exercise. If you experience symptoms during the night you should avoid exercising less than two hours before sleep time. Stretching and relaxation exercises can help you to get sleep.

You should also be aware of the changes of your symptoms. You will need more rest during the times when you experience more joint pain and stiffness.

You can do your exercises at your preferred place. Some people will prefer doing their exercises in places where they are alone while others will prefer having it in a community gym. A community gym can be a better place because you can get support from an instructor.

Starting a regular exercise program can be challenging but understanding the benefits of the exercise can be helpful in motivating you to do the exercises. You should also set goals. These goals should be realistic. You can also reward yourself when you achieve them. Keeping a chart to check your progress can also be helpful. Exercises you are involved in should be convenient, fun and relatively inexpensive.


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Munneke, M., Arthritis and Rheumatism, June 15, 2005; vol 53(3): pp 410-417. Paffenbarger, R., New England Journal of Medicine, March 6, 1986; vol 314(10): pp 605-613. Stenstrom, C., Arthritis Care Research, December 1994; vol 7(4): pp 190-197.

Churchill Otieno
Churchill Otieno, holds a degree in Communications and Public Relations. He is an accomplished independent researcher, experienced, professional writer based in Chicago, IL past Mombasa, Kenya. He is an author and publisher for Consumer Health Digest - Joint Pain Center category since 2013. He has an additional credentials in health and lifestyle fitness. He has been writing articles on health for more than two years with interest on bone, joint health, arthritis, osteoarthritis etc. He is also a contributor to and many other popular websites. His mission is to educate, empower and advocate people whose lives have changed due to arthritis joint pain. He also strive to support the families and caregivers as they learn how to advocate and care for the afflicted person.