6 Secrets of Successful Exercisers With RA

Use these smart strategies to achieve your workout goals—and get better pain relief.

Liz Neporent

The key to achieving your workout goals—and better pain relief—may be simpler than you think. Just believe in yourself, say researchers, who published a study on the subject in Arthritis Care & Research. To boost your confidence, set realistic exercise goals if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). “The clearer you can be about your objectives, the better chance you’ll have of reaching them,” says Eric Matteson, MD, chief of rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Here, six ways to set yourself up for success.

1. Keep an activity diary. It’s easy to overestimate your fitness level, so Dr. Matteson advises tracking your activities for a week before starting an exercise program. That way, you’ll know what you’re truly capable of doing. Record information such as your weight, the physical activities you do throughout the day, how challenging the activities are, and the severity of your symptoms before, during and after movement. 

2. Discuss your fitness goals with your doctor. In previous studies, 87% of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients have said they know the importance of goal setting, but only 73% have had a meaningful conversation about it with their rheumatologist. Work with your doctor to ensure that any inflammation and joint pain are under control with medication. Share your activity diary and ask what exercise goals you might be able to achieve. Be sure to check in with him regularly to monitor your progress, and adjust your program and treatment as needed.

3. Start slowly. The No. 1 mistake people who have RA make? Jumping into a program too aggressively, says Dr. Matteson. That can cause undue muscle soreness and exacerbate pain and inflammation. A reasonable plan for someone with moderate RA is to start with 10 minutes of low-intensity walking daily, says Dr. Matteson. After a week, determine how well your joints are holding up. When you’re ready to do more, add one to two minutes per session until you build up to 30 minutes of walking at least five days a week.

4. Warm up first. Warming up before a workout helps raise your body temperature, increase blood flow to your muscles and lubricate joints—all of which can make exercise more comfortable. So take five minutes to loosen up before your workouts. Try rotating your shoulders, flexing your hands and ankles, doing gentle waist twists, rolling your hips and bending your knees.

5. Consider zero-impact options. If your joint problems are so profound that even a low-impact activity like walking is too challenging, consider no-impact options like a stationary bicycle or elliptical trainer. Water workouts, such as swimming and aqua aerobics, are often the best choices because water provides cushioning and supports nearly 90% of your body weight. 

6. Watch the weights. Strength training can be a valuable addition to your cardio routine, but proceed with caution. Using heavy weights, gripping weights too firmly or overdoing repetitive movements may result in flare-ups of the very symptoms you’re trying to prevent. Dr. Matteson recommends doing exercises like leg raises and modified squats, which require light weights or none at all. Consider working with a physical therapist or trainer who has experience working with RA patients to ensure your program is safe. 

April 2013