Excuses, be gone! If you have RA, the right exercise plan can reduce pain, boost energy and extend your life. Here’s how to get started.
Want a long, healthy life? Exercise is key. But if you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), maintaining a regular fitness routine becomes even more important.
Research shows that the inflammatory characteristics of rheumatoid arthritis are linked to a higher risk of heart disease. According to the American College of Rheumatology, the risk of having a heart attack nearly doubles after an RA diagnosis, likely because inflammation can lead to plaque buildup on the arteries, which reduces blood flow.
But the benefits of exercise go beyond protecting your ticker. Aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility training may also help reduce pain and stiffness, lower injury risk, boost bone strength and send your energy levels soaring.
However, many people with RA are still hesitant to hit the gym. “I find that exercising is one of their biggest fears,” says Maura Iversen, PT, SD, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences at Northeastern University in Boston. They may worry that working out will be uncomfortable on their joints, especially during a flare.
Here’s how to nix exercise anxiety and find a routine that’s right for you.
5 steps to kick-start your RA exercise routine
The right—and wrong—exercises for RA
Because of the heart-health risks associated with rheumatoid arthritis, choose a form of aerobic exercise that gets your heart pumping. Whether it’s walking or swimming, aim for 150 minutes a week—even if it’s in 10-minute intervals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends strength training for people with rheumatoid arthritis, due to its research-backed knack for decreasing pain, increasing muscle strength and reducing disability. If lifting weights sounds like the last thing you want to do with achy joints, try hydraulic resistance training. And don’t forget flexibility—stretching or taking RA-friendly yoga classes can reduce stiffness and may decrease pain.
What kind of exercises should you avoid if you’re just getting started? “No Zumba,” says Iversen, who explains that the main risk of this dance-fitness workout is overdoing it. “If your post-workout pain lasts for more than an hour, you’ve probably overdone it.” Also be wary of workouts that put a lot of stress on the joints, such as jogging.
Should you exercise during an RA flare?
“The old-school mindset was never to exercise during a flare. Now, we know that moderate exercise is okay,” Iversen explains.
During a flare, the best trick is to stick to interval training—try a 10-minute set first. If that feels okay, try another… and perhaps even another.