Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2022

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be debilitating and can affect your quality of life. The pain, stiffness, and fatigue that come with RA can decrease your ability to perform daily tasks.1

RA affects your whole body. It can result in physical changes including increased fat and reduced muscle mass. Having RA also increases your risk for heart disease. But regular physical activity can help reduce your symptoms and risk for heart disease.1,2

Benefits of exercise

There are several benefits of physical activity for people with RA. They include:1,2

  • Increased strength and flexibility
  • Improved bone health
  • Improved mood and decrease in depression
  • Better pain control
  • Less fatigue
  • Better sleep
  • Improved heart health
  • Reduced damage in small and large joints

When they follow a plan approved by their doctor, people with RA can exercise safely and with no negative effects.1

Barriers to exercise

Despite these benefits, people with RA are less likely to be physically active than the general public. One study showed that only 14 percent of people with RA perform physical activity more than 3 times per week.1

People with RA may hesitate to exercise due to fear of making symptoms worse. In the past, doctors recommended that people with RA rest and avoid physical activity. However, research now suggests the opposite is better.1

People with RA may have the following barriers to exercising:1

  • Lack of knowledge of the benefits
  • Lack of time
  • Limiting symptoms of RA such as fatigue and pain

The key to overcoming these barriers is understanding the benefits of physical activity. Ask your doctor what types of exercise would be best for you. They can discuss the safety and effectiveness of physical activity for your unique condition.1

Types of exercise

There are four main types of exercise that can help improve the symptoms of RA: flexibility, strength, aerobic, and body awareness.2

Flexibility exercises

Range of motion and stretching exercises help maintain or improve flexibility in affected joints and muscles. Examples of these exercises include:2

  • Golfing
  • Tennis
  • Yoga

Strength exercises

These exercises work the muscles to become stronger and provide more joint support. Stronger muscles also help reduce bone loss and allow for better function. Examples of strength exercises include:2

  • Body weight exercises
  • Lifting hand-held weights
  • Working with elastic bands
  • Pushing or pulling against another form of resistance

Aerobic exercises

These exercises use the large muscles of the body. They improve the function of the heart, muscles, and lungs. Aerobic exercise helps with weight control, mood, sleep, and overall health. This type of exercise includes:2

  • Walking
  • Aerobic dance
  • Swimming
  • Bicycling

Body awareness exercises

This group of exercises helps improve posture, balance, and coordination. They also can be relaxing. Examples of this type include:2

  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Tips for becoming physically active

The best advice for those looking to start an exercise routine is to start slow. Follow the tips below to stay motivated:3

  • Set realistic goals.
  • Reward yourself when you reach your goals.
  • Invite family or friends to exercise with you.
  • Keep track of your progress.
  • Choose an activity that is convenient, inexpensive, and fun.

Depending on how severe your RA is, it may be best to choose low-impact exercises such as swimming or cycling.2

Deciding to become physically active is a key step toward improving your RA symptoms and your overall health. But talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine. They can help you decide what is best for you.

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