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To Exercise, or Not to Exercise

Every morning I wake up and dread the first movements of the day. I hate waking up and I’m the worst at it (just ask my amazingly-patient husband). I don’t want to open my eyes. I don’t want to move my stiff and achy bones. I don’t even want to contemplate getting out of bed.

My first thought usually is, “I’ll skip my exercises today.” But no, I must not succumb to the sleepy mesmerism of my morning-brain!

I need my stretches after I first wake up to get my joints moving and my muscles awake. The routine begins with ankle circles and moves into leg lifts. My morning exercises are part stretches to get my bones moving and part strength-building involving more challenging movements.

It can be really hard to start my exercises, especially when I’m feeling especially achy. I have to remind myself that my morning routine helps me to manage my rheumatoid arthritis and keep my joints happier overall.

As a high-schooler my parents woke me extra early to do exercises and then a hot whirlpool soak before catching the bus to school. I hated it every morning, yet afterwards I was thankful because it got my body moving better and helped to maintain the relative health of my joints.

The last series of physical therapy sessions I had a couple years ago was helpful for learning some exercises for my current abilities that I could adjust for my progression. Over time I have been able to add repetitions and even some weights for some of my exercises.

Although I do other exercises that are more active, my daily morning routine is the foundation of my activity. I’m a big proponent of gentle stretches even when my joints are super achy. Despite the pain of movement, I think not moving at all is very harmful to RA joints. As long as I go slow and easy on the worst days, exercises help to make my flared joints a little more mobile.

Honestly, I should probably try to work in more gentle exercises throughout the day. I get caught up in what I’m doing and forget to move. Then when I want to stand up I find my joints are cold and cranky. On the days when I remember to work in some stretches or exercises, even at my desk, or some steps in place, then my joints do a little better and don’t get as stiff.

In the evening I work in some arm exercises with weights or do some walking, swimming or a combination. Previously I have also found yoga to be helpful. For many years I took a gentle yoga class where the teacher provided adaptations for my RA limitations. I liked yoga because it was a combination of stretching and also cardiovascular exercises. My standing balance currently isn’t steady enough for yoga, but I’m hoping to eventually work my way back to it.

If I have one regret about my management of my RA during my lifetime, it is that I could have exercised more. I went through so many periods where I was afraid to exercise or in so much pain that I wouldn’t try. And I wonder sometimes if I did my exercises when I was a kid more often, instead of rebelling against them, would my joints be a tiny bit better? Would I have a little less joint damage and restrictions to my range of motion?

This is all theoretical and I cannot turn back time or hold regrets. Instead I look forward and have adopted a ‘yes’ answer to the question of exercise whenever possible. Even on bad days it helps me to feel a little better.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Anita
    5 years ago

    Exercise is hard enough without RA pain interfering. I don’t do nearly enough of it, but have difficulty doing most things these days. Because of joint damage from 31 years of RA, I have to be careful about the types of exercise I do. I’ve usually had good luck with swimming and cycling, but can no longer climb vertically to get out of the pool at the YMCA.

    My knees and ankles have started having difficulty when I ride a bike on anything other than flat surfaces, so I’ll need to either switch to stationary exercise bikes or get one with an electric “assist” battery to help me on hills (these are pretty nifty, but expensive).

    I’ve also found that I can’t exercise much in the mornings. It tends to wear me out and uses up my “mileage” allotment of energy for the day. Besides, I’m much more of a night owl than a morning person, anyway. Gentle exercise, followed by some stretching and a bit of quiet meditation/relaxation can make you feel pretty good at the end of the day.

  • Kelly Mack moderator author
    5 years ago

    Hi Anita, my knees don’t have the range, but I have heard biking can be good exercise because it doesn’t put a lot of pressure on joints. For swimming, would the YMCA let you use a lift to get in and out of the pool? Glad you have found some activities and timing that work for you. Best, Kelly

  • Kellie
    5 years ago

    I was told not to exercise during a flare. Is that not right?

  • Kelly Mack moderator author
    5 years ago

    Kellie, I suggest talking to your docs, but my experience is that a a little gentle exercise during a flare can help me feel better. It’s a careful balance as you don’t want to do too much and hurt your joints. But a little activity, like stretching, can help with the pain and stiffness from a flare. Hope this helps. -Kelly

  • Cassy
    5 years ago

    Thank you Kelly! You have hit the nail on the head with my EXACT thoughts. I have the same thinking many many mornings. I’m sitting here right now, with my cup of coffee and on my laptop, contemplating AGAIN, about exercising. A year ago, my husband got me a recumbant bike cause the RA was aggravating my knees. Now a year later, my knees are awesome. NO PAIN! PLUS, I’m down 30 lbs. That was an added surprise. I just started watching what I ate and how much. More eating in moderation than denying myself what I wanted to eat.
    Now, I have a frozen shoulder and have been through PT with it. Research shows, it could take up to 3 years for it to thaw. I do my arm exercises every day. I wake up during the night and as I change positions, I stretch out my arm. My daily routine is bike, lunges, squats, and arms.
    I will overcome this. One day, I WILL be pain free. You will also.
    Thanks for sharing. You have helped me today. So, as I finsih my coffee and this LONG reply, I will get on with the exercising, with you in mind and knowing my day is better cause I have you in my course also.

    I life my coffee cup to us for BEATING RA!!!

  • Kelly Mack moderator author
    5 years ago

    Thanks Cassy! You’re words made me smile! So glad exercise has helped you too. Here’s to beating RA! Best, Kelly

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