And the rewards can be great. For people with RA, positive results of exercise include more motivation, better health perception, greater self-efficacy — belief in the ability to achieve personal goals, according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health
Exercise safety, though, is especially important when you have RA. Before you begin any exercise routine, make sure it’s okay with your doctor first, Fantigrassi says. Your doctor can make sure you’re up to the physical challenge.
If you work with a personal trainer, be upfront about having RA. “Let he or she know what joints are affected and if there are any exercises that give you trouble,” Fantigrassi says. If possible, work with a trainer who has experience with people with RA. You can even see if your trainer is willing to speak with your doctor to better understand your RA before you start a workout routine.
Then, as you exercise, listen to your body. If you have a flare up, you may not be able to exercise that part of your body for a day or so, Fantigrassi says. “It's important to know your body and what's normal pain versus something causing inflammation of the joint,” he says.
Your “Feel Better With RA” Workout
An ideal workout routine for someone with RA is usually low-impact, works the whole body, and combines cardio with resistance training. The workout also is usually less intense than other workouts. For example, you might do 10 to 12 repetitions instead of up to 20. “There’s less joint stress, but you’ll still get the benefits of exercise,” Fantigrassi says.
If you get the go-ahead from your doctor, aim to mix resistance training and cardio activity three to five times a week for 30 to 60 minutes each time, Fantigrassi says. His recommended exercise routine for beginners focuses on balance, stabilization, form, and technique. You can complete the routine consecutively, or you can rest for up to 90 seconds between each move.
The following low-impact routine is a total-body workout that should take 30 to 40 minutes to complete. You’ll need a soft foam roller, dumbbells, a stability ball, an exercise step, and a mat.
1. Self-myofascial release. Lie on your side. Put the roller a couple of inches under your shoulder to target your back muscles. Slowly move the roller by shifting your weight forward or backward. Search for a tender area and hold for up to 30 seconds. Don’t roll over bony areas or joints. Apply more pressure if this is comfortable; the area might feel tender, but it should not be painful. Repeat the same moves on your other side. Then sit up, with your legs in front of you and your arms supporting your body. Put the roller under your calves and slowly move it by shifting your weight. Again, search for a tender area and hold for up to 30 seconds. Don’t roll over bony areas or joints. Apply more pressure, but stay in your comfort zone.
2. Standing hip flexor stretch. Place one foot behind you and hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides.
3. Core exercise: Plank. Lie face down on the floor and prepare to support yourself on your lower arms and elbows. Do one or two sets of 10 repetitions, holding at the top for 2 to 5 seconds. Focus on keeping your back flat and your thigh and butt muscles contracted.
4. Core exercise: Two-leg floor bridge. Lie on the floor face up with feet hip-width apart and straight. Your arms should be at your sides with palms facing down. Raise hips off floor until knees and shoulders are level, then slowly lower hips back to the floor. The knees should stay in line with your toes throughout the move. Perform one or two sets of 10 reps, holding at the top for 2 to 5 seconds.
5. Single-leg balance. Lift one leg off the ground and in front of you. Hold for 5 to 20 seconds. Repeat with the other leg. Complete one or two sets. As a progression, you can reach your leg to the front, side, or back while trying to keep your balance.
Depending on your fitness level, do these exercises as a “circuit” with no rest in between, or rest for up to 90 seconds. Perform one to three circuits of 10 to 12 repetitions for each exercise. Use a slow, controlled tempo for each movement. Rest for 1 to 2 minutes and then repeat the exercises up to three times.
1. Step up to balance and curl. Step up on your exercise box or step. Lift one foot while at the same time lifting up the weight in your hand. Perform five to six reps and then switch sides.
2. Dumbbell chest press. Lie back on your bench or step. Hold your dumbbells straight over you. Lower your arms until your elbows are just below your chest. Lift the weights back up.
3. Single leg scaption. Lift up one leg slightly. Raise the dumbbells in each hand to a 45-degree angle. Perform five to six reps, and then switch the leg you are using for balance. As you hold the dumbbells, your thumbs should point up.
4. Ball leg curl. Place your stability ball in front of you. Put your legs and feet on the ball. Then, bend your knees and rest your heels on the top of the ball. Aim for your feet to be 6 to 8 inches apart. Place your hands on the floor beside you for balance.
Cool down by walking or doing another form of light cardio exercise for about 10 minutes.