The First Steps to Fitness With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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. 

Katie Kerns
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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

  1. Talk with your healthcare provider. First get the okay from your rheumatologist, who may have specific suggestions or warnings based on your condition. In addition, a physical therapist can design a specific workout program just for you.
  2. Set small goals. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, which can be attained by working out for 30 minutes, five days a week. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, Dr. Iversen recommends achieving this benchmark through interval training. For example, try a low-impact cardio workout for 10 minutes, three times a day. “Then when you’re ready, maybe you’ll try two 15-minute sets,” she says. For strength training, start with small, 1- or 2-pound weights and then kick it up a notch as your muscle builds.
  3. Work out with your peers. Talk with your healthcare professional, check your local health clubs or do a quick Google search to find workout classes and programs specifically designed for people with rheumatoid arthritis. “It can be nice to exercise with people who have the same condition,” explains Iversen.
  4. Get the right gear. Comfortable walking shoes are a must Cushioned sneakers can protect the layer of skin beneath your toes, which often thins out with RA. And stock up on cold packs, which can ease post-workout soreness.
  5. Just go for a walk! Remember: You don’t have to become a professional body builder or marathon runner. “The best way to start working out is simply by walking,” says Iversen. 
April 2013