It is important for patients with RA to maintain a balance between rest (which will reduce inflammation) and moderate exercise (which will relieve stiffness and weakness). Studies have suggested that even as little as 3 hours of physical therapy over 6 weeks can help people with RA, and that these benefits are sustained.
The goal of exercise is to:
- Maintain a wide range of motion
- Increase strength, endurance, and mobility
- Improve general health
- Promote well-being
In general, doctors recommend the following approaches:
- Start with the easiest exercises, stretching and tensing of the joints without movement.
- Next, attempt mild strength training.
- The next step is to try aerobic exercises. These include walking, dancing, or swimming, particularly in heated pools. Avoid heavy impact exercises, such as running, downhill skiing, and jumping.
- Tai chi, which uses graceful slow sweeping movements, is an excellent method for combining stretching and range-of-motion exercises with relaxation techniques. It may be of particular value for elderly patients with RA.
A common-sense approach to exercise is the best guide:
- If exercise is causing sharp pain, stop immediately.
- If lesser aches and pains continue for more than 2 hours afterwards, try a lighter exercise program for a while.
- Using large joints instead of small ones for ordinary tasks can help relieve pressure, for instance, closing a door with the hip or pushing buttons with the palm of the hand.
Many patients with RA try dietary approaches, such as fasting, vegan diets, or eliminating specific foods that seem to worsen RA symptoms. There is little scientific evidence to support these approaches but some patients report anecdotally that they are helpful.
Review Date: 02/16/2011
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.