Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis With Exercise

by Kate Maliha, MA (HKin)

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the lining of the joints, causing pain, inflammation, swelling and joint destruction.1 This inflammation can result in bone and cartilage erosion, which thereby reduces movement and ability.2 Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, physical activity has been shown to improve symptoms and allow people suffering from this condition to live active and enjoyable lives.

Why is Physical Activity helpful for someone with Rheumatoid Arthritis?

By strengthening the muscles and tissues around the joints you can protect them from further damage. Strong supporting musculature around a joint will take the pressure off the bones, alleviating some of the pain caused by the condition. Mobility exercises will decrease stiffness and pain in joints, allowing for an increased pain-free range of motion. Research has now shown that a gradual progressive exercise program encompassing endurance, strength and mobility training can produce favorable results in arthritic clients.

Aerobic Activity

Research on aerobic activity and rheumatoid arthritis shows individuals suffering from RA are less fit than the general population. This is likely due to an avoidance of activity because of the pain experienced in the joints. To be effective, aerobic activity must be performed a minimum of twice a week for no less than 20 minutes. Low impact activities such as cycling, water exercise, and walking are suggested3.

Resistance Training

Resistance training must be carefully approached, and high impact, high intensity or quick movements should be avoided. Isometric exercises (where there is no movement at the joint), elastic bands, machines, and free weights are all safe modes of resistance exercise when used at a low to moderate intensity with proper form and technique. General guidelines suggest light- to moderateintensity activity performed 2-7 days a week is beneficial. The number of sets and repetitions of each exercise will differ based on individual symptoms and tolerance3.

Flexibility Training

Stretching is considered safe if done slowly and carefully. Gentle static stretching at a moderate intensity should be performed at least twice a week for all major muscle groups3.

Aquatic Exercise

For some people with rheumatoid arthritis, traditional land-based exercise programs are not tolerated well and aquatic exercise is a great alternative. Exercising in the water provides a low-impact and warm environment, thereby removing excess stress on the joints while still allowing for the benefits of conventional exercise3.

Please consult a medical professional before starting this or any other exercise program. This article does not constitute medical advice.

1. The Arthritis Society. (2015) Rheumatoid Arthritis. Retrieved from

2. Clark, K. (2004). Training Clients With Arthritis. IDEA Fit. Retrieved from:

3. Cheatham, Scott W. & Cain, (2015) Rheumatoid Arthritis: Exercise Programming for the Strength and Conditioning Professional. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 37(1):30-39

Kate Maliha, MA (HKin) has a Master’s degree in Human Kinetics and has conducted aging research at the University of British Columbia. She is the owner of Love Your Age (, a fitness company specializing in the exercise needs of seniors.

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