Rheumatoid Arthritis

Exercise for rheumatoid arthritis

It is important to balance rest and activity. Rest is important for inflamed joints, but too much rest will make them stiff. Exercise can protect the joints by keeping the muscles strong, and it can also maintain a healthy weight or reduce excess weight. (See 'Ongoing symptoms - pain, fatigue, depression and weight change'). Exercise will not make arthritis worse as long as it is the right type of exercise (see 'Physiotherapy and hydrotherapy').

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Most people we interviewed recognised the importance of regular exercise. One woman explained that it was a balance of keeping active and managing 'flare ups'. A 42-year-old man tried to keep mobile in the office and did a bit of gardening in the summer. Many people mentioned walking in moderation as a good way to stay fit; one man took brisk walks with his dog twice a day.

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One woman said that exercise helped to take away the pain. At first she hadn't realised that exercises were so important and she regretted that as the result of inactivity she had lost some movement in one arm. She had done a course of Tai Chi for people with arthritis and recommended it.

Some people could do yoga, but others found it too painful (also see 'Complementary therapies'). Other classes people found helpful included Pilates and water aerobics.

Many people found swimming beneficial and recommended regular sessions. Some also enjoyed spending time in a jacuzzi. One woman swam five days a week. She made new friends and said she felt much better physically and mentally as the result of her activity.

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Another woman also found that swimming helped her psychologically as well as physically. She preferred swimming in a specially heated pool, so that she could stand still and work on particular joints. She also preferred swimming with a small group of other people, so that she had plenty of space. One woman who swam emphasised the need to strike a balance between keeping fit and making her symptoms worse.

Many people who went to the swimming pool continued to use the exercises they had learnt in hydrotherapy sessions. Two women had negotiated with the owners of the local pool to raise the temperature on one day so groups of swimmers with disabilities could use it.

A few people, on the other hand, found swimming painful. One person had to stop doing it, and a 70 year old man found that over-arm or back stroke caused shoulder pain, although he could do gentle breast stroke. Sometimes he had pain after swimming and he wondered if the water was too cold. Someone else found that breast stroke hurt her knees.

One woman cycled to keep her young daughter company, but sometimes her knees hurt and she wondered if she was damaging her joints.

A 49 year old woman enjoyed exercising in a gym. She used equipment which was easy to set up and took care not to put too much strain on her joints. But some people were warned that they might be doing the wrong type of exercise. A 38 year old woman was advised to stop going to the gym because she had overdone the exercises, and was putting excess weight on her joints.

Some participants were motivated to exercise at home and built stretching exercises into their daily routine. One woman found gentle stretching beneficial even whilst experiencing a flare up.

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Another woman had an exercise bike, but was told that it was not suitable for someone with artificial knees, so she started swimming instead.

One woman enjoyed aerobic exercises but was told by her consultant that she should only do low impact aerobics and that if she found her joints were 'hot' an hour after the aerobics she should stop doing it altogether. She was told that Aquafit (exercises in water) would be better for her joints.

Several people reported a sense of achievement after completing some form of exercise and it generally made them feel better.

Last reviewed August 2016.

Last updated September 2010.

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