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RA and exercise

Updated on August 11, 2015

Why should I exercise?

Ah, the pain of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and exercise.

Disclaimer time (as always). I am not an expert in this area. I am not a doctor, health professional or therapist. I was diagnosed with a severe and aggressive form of Rheumatoid Arthritis and I am sharing my RA journey in hopes of helping my fellow RA sufferers. I am simply a woman trying to find a way to successfully live with RA.

My Rheumatologist suggested that I exercise. I considered myself to be overweight but not obese. All right, let’s be honest, I was obese. I was struggling with joint pain every day and feeling exhausted so how could I possibly introduce exercise into my day. I made a hundred excuses as to why I could not and should not exercise. Oh, I was too tired. My house was dirty. I needed to spend time with my dog. You know the excuses, we all make them when trying to avoid sometime that we perceive as being negative.

In my research, one of the things I kept running across was that being active was one of the best things you can do if you have Rheumatoid Arthritis. My immediate thought was that this was written by people who had no idea what it is like to suffer from RA. My Rheumatologist said being fit would lessen the pain from RA, make stronger bones (since RA can thin your bones, especially if you take steroids), give you better and more energy, and it is good for your heard and all your other muscles.

It was during a week of feeling that I could barely move and that my body was stiff and achy that I joined a gym. I joined a gym just to swim and to use the hot tub and sauna. It was a start. My husband, who was also obese, joined me for moral support. We started going every couple of days and just floated in the pool at first. We pretended to work out in the pool but really we just floated. The water felt amazing on my joints. We slowly introduced a 29 minute workout program in addition to our swimming. The workout program includes 14 different machines. You work out for 45 seconds on each machine and have 15 seconds to move from one machine to the next. You do the circuit twice before completing the work out. We would do this activity first and end with swimming and if the hot tub was empty, use the hot tub.

For our birthdays, our son gave us gift cards at a sports store. We shopped and shopped and ended buying tennis rackets. We don’t compete or play a game of tennis. We hit the ball back and forth. It is a good work out and does not seem to stress my joints too much. If I am feeling sore, I stop. We “play” tennis for about 15 minutes, do our 29 minute circuit work out and end with swimming. Did I tell you that we do this every night after work and twice on the weekends? Did I tell you that I have lost 15 pounds and I have dropped a dress size? We have become gym junkies.

So, how is this helping? Or, is it helping? I ache every day but I would anyway without the Rheumatoid Arthritis because I am working areas of my body that haven’t been worked in years. I have more energy during the day and I sleep great at night. Before introducing exercise into my life, I had difficulties sleeping and was starting to rely on a sleep aid. I don’t need a sleep aid any longer and I wake up less stiff.

When starting any exercise program, start slow, know your limits and work within your limits, and talk to your Rheumatologist. Try to incorporate a mix of flexibility, strengthening, range of motion and aerobic activities. In my research, your workout plan may include the following:


Low-impact activities can include walking, swimming, or using an elliptical or bike machine. All these activities should get your heart pumping while causing the least amount of stress to your joints. Walking is an easy activity to do because you can do it almost anywhere and at no cost. Start off slow and increase your pace and your distance. Stay hydrated and make sure you wear the proper shoes. I no longer look for the closest parking spot but I park as far away as I can safely park and walk.

Another low-impact activity is yoga which combines deep breathing with gentle and flowing movements and poses. Studies that I looked at show that yoga is beneficial to people with RA. With that said, from personal experience, do not go to any yoga class and expect great results. I have tried gentle yoga with limited success because I find it to be stressful on my joints and I end up in pain. I found a great class called Yoga for people with chronic pain. This was gentler than the “gentle yoga” class I took and the results were positive. However, the class is now only offered during the work day so I am unable to take it right now. I have found a RA and yoga DVD that I use periodically. Check your local Arthritis Foundation or Senior Center to see if they offer a yoga class for people with Arthritis.

Aquatic exercises are gentle on painful joints because the water helps support your weight which, in turn, reduces joint stress. Exercising in warm water helps to reduce stiffness. Water provides a natural resistance so you can combine your aerobic and strengthening workout. As I stated earlier, I started my work out program by floating in the pool. Next, I walked the length of the lap pool, adding “laps” each time. Yes, I looked funny as I was the only one walking in the lap pool but I didn’t care because it was helping. After that, I started swimming a lap between my walking exercises. Now, I swim for about 10-15 minutes.

Using a stationary bike is another great way to safely get your heart and joints moving and to relieve some of your stiffness. You don’t need to put it on the most resistive setting. I use the lightest setting right now. Every time I go to increase the setting to a more difficult workout, my body protests. Know your limitations and respect them.


Strength training uses resistance to work your muscles. I use our local gym which has a fitness circuit of 14 machines. Most of the machines have weights and work different parts of the body. I use the least amount of resistance because for me it is using the muscles and joints with the least amount of stress. Weight or strength training needs to be done with the focus on proper form. Seek guidance from a physical therapist or an individual trained to work with people who have arthritis.


I was told that any type of stretching exercise should be gentle and only done after the muscle is warmed up. I have found that it is one of the best ways to reduce that stiffness we all feel, especially in the morning. Start with a short warm up period before going into your stretching exercises. At my desk, I have stretching exercises for people who work at their desk all day. I do these exercises twice a day if I have time. They really do help. You can find them on the internet, through your employer or a physical therapist.


Avoid anything that is high-impact or that puts a lot of stress on your joints such as jogging or heavy weight lifting.

Conclusion: There are so many reasons to be physically active when you have RA. It is, however, so important to avoid added discomfort or injury. Pay attention to your body and pace yourself. Try doing 10 minute sessions, 3 times a day, instead of 30- minute sessions, once a day, if you are having difficulties. Try to include stretching, strengthening and low-impact activities in all your routines. Get the most out of your workout by wearing comfortable clothing, listening to music, and mixing up your routine. Push yourself but respect your RA limitations.

If I can do this, so you can you. Really, you can do it. Start off slow. I promise you that you will feel better if you slowly add exercise into your RA treatment plan. I missed the gym yesterday because I was stung by a bee (another story for another day) and I am allergic to bee stings. It did not require a visit to the ER but it did require that I stay home. Today, I am stiff, sore and in desperate need of exercise. A pill is no longer needed to relieve my pain, just exercise. But remember, before starting an exercise program, please talk to your Rheumatologist.


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