Exercises for All Levels of RA Pain

by Cathy Kramer Patient Advocate

More and more rheumatoid arthritis (RA) folks are sharing their gym stories and 5K runs on social media. Based on these posts, one might wonder: “Is everyone with RA getting better? Can everyone do these activities?” This got me thinking, too. What types of exercises are people with various lengths of time with RA doing for exercise, and what are their pain levels?

Woman injecting medication in stomach.
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What about pain, swelling, and joint damage?

For many, the swelling, pain, and possible joint change would make RA and exercise seem an unlikely pair. Putting more stress on a body that just wants to rest seems impossible. Yet, modern medications are allowing more of us with RA to put regular workout routines back into our daily schedules. While today’s medications are not eliminating the effects of RA completely, they are allowing many to once again call themselves athletes.

Types of exercise with RA.
Cathy Kramer

Zumba? Yes, it's possible

In fact, many in our community are participating in workouts that never seemed possible before, such as Zumba and kickboxing.

But what about the rest of us? Who else is working out? I went to social media to gather three pieces of information:

  • How many years people have been living with RA: X number
  • Their current pain level on a scale of 1-10: X level
  • Their go-to exercises

Here’s what I found about how people exercise their RA bodies.

Young woman stretching on couch at home.
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Stretching and swimming for pain level: 8 / years with RA: 9

Experiencing high levels of pain? Stretching is one of several ways RA community member Alexa makes sure she keeps moving despite the pain. In addition, she gets out and walks or works out on an elliptical trainer. If she's feeling up to it, she plays Just Dance on Ninetendo Switch, as well as enjoying swimming and occasional yoga.

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Strength training for pain level: 7 / years with RA: 6

When she's still experiencing quite a bit of pain, Molly takes precautions in adding workouts to her days. She does strength training with machines rather than free weights to ensure that she is using correct positioning. Plus, she gets in cardio via the arc or upright bike. Since she is experiencing regular pain due to RA, she also makes sure she listens to her body and if needed, takes a rest.

Woman mopping floor.
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Just keep moving with pain level: 6+ / years with RA: 20+

High pain levels make working out more than difficult. So what can a person do? When pain levels are high, those with years of RA experience say the most important thing to do is move. How? For Lene, 51 years with RA, playing with her 15-pound lap cat is a great way to incorporate daily movement into her routine. Others with years of experience include walking and swimming but claim the most important thing is to just keep moving.

Smiling women in water aerobics class.
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Swimming and gardening for pain level: 3-5 / years with RA: 7-8

As the pain levels go down when folks get their RA under control, many in the community like to vary their physical activities. Some common movement methods found among this group include walking the dog, using an elliptical machine, stretching, gardening, yoga with some adjustments, Zumba, and swimming.

Woman riding adult tricycle.
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3-Wheeled biking for pain level: 2 / years with RA: 8

Once pain levels start going down, it's fun to get back to activities you might have done before RA. Three-wheeled bicycles are a great option for RA. With only three gears, you don’t have to worry about shifting a lot. For Cathy, an RA-community member, a three-wheeled bike also gives her the benefit of getting outdoors where her mind can escape things for a bit. Plus, she “feels loser” in general.

Adult women in yoga class.
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Yoga for pain level: 2 / years with RA: 4

Perhaps because of its quieter nature and ability to make many adjustments, yoga seems to be a go-to workout for many in the community at this pain level. It is a nice way to stretch muscles, add flexibility, and get those joints moving.

Senior couple biking.
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Pain level: 0-1; Years with RA: 14

Medications have worked well for me the last eight years. However, adding back regular workouts came slowly for me. I needed to build up my balance and flexibility, so I took things slow. Today, at 50 years old, I bike ride regularly during warm weather with my husband, walk daily with my border collie, and do HITT/strength routines three-to-four times a week. On days RA visits, I do calm stretches or just rest.

Man walking dog on neighborhood sidewalk.
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Walking is the winner

Walking is the No. 1 answer I received from the RA community when it comes to adding movement among all pain levels and number of years with RA. Walking is also my go-to way to exercise no matter what my pain level. It gives my brain a chance to enjoy the outdoors, moves my joints in a gentle way, and can vary in length depending on my fatigue and pain levels.

Smiling older woman working out with trainer.
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As you can see, just as with everything RA related, there is never a one-size-fits-all approach. We all share a diagnosis, checkups, pain, and medications, but otherwise, we are each very unique in how and what we are able to do with RA. Just because someone can do many physical activities today does not mean they haven’t experienced days, months, and even years where just getting out of bed was difficult.

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Do what's best for your RA

While many days it may not seem true, we live in a good time to have RA. With the right combination of medications, we are creating a very different community than we saw even 10 years ago. Yes, it can be challenging to see social media posts about active people with RA on days when you're struggling. But one day, hopefully, you will be active, too. Please be encouraging to others and let them encourage you. Posts of 5Ks and yoga workouts are exactly what keep us motivated on rough days. A community that is getting more physical is never a bad thing.

Cathy Kramer
Meet Our Writer
Cathy Kramer

Cathy Kramer has been married longer than not and is a mom to two young adults plus an aging border collie. She splits her days/nights between two community colleges as an ESL/ABE instructor. She is a strong believer in gratitude and attempts to leave a smile everywhere she goes. Cathy shares her positive voice as an advocate in the rheumatoid arthritis (RA), chronic illness, and self-care communities. Her ongoing journey with RA can be found on her blog The Life and Adventures of Cateepoo. She often hangs out @cateepoo88 on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Cathy is also a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral Facebook page: facebook.com/RAHealthCentral.