Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Topic Overview

Exercise can reduce pain and improve function in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In addition, exercise may help prevent the buildup of scar tissue, which can lead to weakness and stiffness.1 Exercise for arthritis takes three forms: stretching, strengthening, and conditioning.

Stretching involves moving joint and muscle groups through and slightly beyond their normal range of motion and holding them in position for at least 15 to 30 seconds. See pictures of various stretches.

Strengthening involves moving muscles against some resistance. Studies have shown that moderate- or high-intensity strength training is well-tolerated in people with rheumatoid arthritis and can help increase or maintain muscle strength.1 In addition, another study reports that a program of long-term, high-intensity weight-bearing exercises improves the functional ability, physical capacity, and emotional status of people with rheumatoid arthritis.2 There are two types of strengthening exercises.

  • Isometric strengthening is simply tightening a muscle or holding it against the resistance of gravity or an immovable object without moving the joint. For example:
    • Tighten the front thigh muscle of the leg.
    • Push the wrist up against the undersurface of a table.
  • Isotonic strengthening means moving a joint through its range of motion against the resistance of a weight or gravity. For example:
    • Put a 3 lb (1.4 kg) weight on your ankle and then bend and straighten your knee.
    • Lift free weights.

See pictures of basic muscle-strengthening exercises and muscle-strengthening with free weights.

Conditioning exercise improves aerobic fitness. Conditioning, or aerobic, exercises include walking, biking, swimming, or water exercise. A target heart rate can guide you to how hard you should exercise so you can get the most aerobic benefit from your workout.

Use this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?

Target heart rate is only a guide. Each individual is different, so pay attention to how you feel while exercising.

Note that even moderate activity, such as walking, can improve your health and may prevent disability from rheumatoid arthritis.

Be sure to follow your health professional's advice about your exercise program. For most people, physical activity does not pose any problem or hazard. For some people, some forms of physical activity might be unsafe or should be started only after talking with a health professional. See a list of exercise cautions to consider before beginning any exercise or fitness program.

For more information on exercise, see the topic Fitness.

References

Citations

  1. Häkkinsen A (2004). Effectiveness and safety of strength training in rheumatoid arthritis. Current Opinion in Rheumatology, 16(2): 132–137.
  2. De Jong Z, et al. (2003). Is a long-term, high-intensity exercise program effective and safe in patients with rheumatoid arthritis? Arthritis and Rheumatism, 48(9): 2415–2424.

Credits

Author Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPH
Editor Kathleen M. Ariss, MS
Associate Editor Tracy Landauer
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Stanford M. Shoor, MD - Rheumatology
Last Updated August 18, 2008

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