Must-Haves for Your RA-Friendly Home Gym

by K. Aleisha Fetters Health Writer

The key to creating the perfect workout space is choosing the right tools for the job. “The goal of exercising with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is to protect joint health, improve overall function, and reduce pain,” explains Jennifer Knox, P.T., a physical therapist at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, IL. “And all while taking into account the abilities and limitations of the exerciser and without further aggravating symptoms.” Here, experts share the best types of equipment for an RA-friendly home gym—plus specific gear recs to make shopping easier.

hand weights

Dumbbells

Hand weights are ideal for performing functional, multi-joint exercises like squats, rows, and presses to fight the muscle loss that can occur with RA, says Julio Aponte, M.D., a Cleveland-based physician and fellow of the American College of Rheumatology. While adjustable sets give you a lot of options, they tend to be big and bulky, and adjusting weights can be hard on the hands and fingers. Instead, invest in a light, medium, and heavy pair, looking for ones like GAIAM Dumbbell Hand Weights with non-slip rubberized or neoprene ends and handles.

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Kettlebells

If you’re really into strength training, expanding your free-weight collection with kettlebells can be wonderful for your hands. Because kettlebells are made with the handle directly above the weight, they are actually easier than dumbbells to hold onto, especially when you’re interested in lifting heavier weights, performing carries, or doing dynamic exercises like swings. When it comes to kettlebells, look for options like those from Yes4All that have textured metal handles. Slick, smooth handles can be hard to hold onto.

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Resistance Bands

Versatile, cost-effective, and space-saving, resistance bands are mainstays in any gym. For RA-friendly ones, Knox recommends opting for long, tubed versions. These come with handles and are easier to hold onto; meaning you’ll be less likely to get snapped by a flyaway band. Rogue makes great, sturdy tube bands with wide, comfort-grip handles. For training the hips and glutes, which is critical to staying stable on your feet, the company also offers short loop bands.

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Recumbent Bike

The best forms of cardio for RA involve little to no impact on the joints. And since putting in a swimming pool isn’t the most practical option, Knox suggests outfitting your home gym with a stationary bike. Recumbent bikes, in which your legs extend in front of you tend to be the most comfortable on the hips and pelvis. Look for a wide, thick cushion; if possible, try out seats before you buy. Additionally, choosing a bike like the Sunny Health and Fitness Magnetic Recumbent Exercise Bike that features optional handles for working your upper body while you pedal.

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Foam Roller

With RA, inflammation in the muscles, tendons, and joints can lead to decreased range of motion, Aponte says. He explains that a flexibility and mobility routine that includes a large, total-body foam roller can help reduce tightness and ease discomfort. To keep things comfortable, opt for a medium-density roller over a high-density one, and steer clear of little nubs or spikes. The GAIAM Restore Muscle Therapy Foam Roller is a good example of a light-to-the-touch roller that won’t leave you grimacing.

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Exercise Balls

Balance, strength, and flexibility—inflated exercise balls, often called Swiss balls, can develop all three, and without stressing the joints or involving any impact, Knox says. The key when buying exercise balls is to always go through reputable companies such as Theraband so you can be confident the ball won’t pop with you on top of it. Once you’ve picked your ball, read through the product description to choose the best size given your height.

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Cuff Weights

Wrist and ankle weights are for more than walking. They are an easy way to add resistance to strength-training exercises like step-ups, squats, overhead presses, triceps extensions, and hamstrings curls—and are particularly attractive during mild flare-ups and periods of hand and finger pain. Look for all-fabric cuffs such as those from BalanceForm that will be comfortable against your skin and you can easily adjust to fit around your wrists or ankles.

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Grip Trainers

Free-weight exercises with dumbbells and kettlebells do strengthen grip, but hand-focused squeeze- and grip-trainers are ideal for working one or both of your hands at a time while you’re on the couch, watching a movie, or reading. Used regularly, they can help you maintain hand function and reduce pain associated with RA, Aponte says. Try out the Metolius Grip Saver Plus Hand Exercisers. It combines a grip ball with loops that slip over each finger and allow you to strengthen not just squeezing, but also extending your fingers.

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Sneakers

Working out barefoot can take some stress off of the knees, but if you’re doing any exercises that involve impact to your feet, it’s important to wear well-fit shoes for shock absorption, says the Arthritis Foundation. When shopping for gym shoes, consider a specialty shoe store, where staff can evaluate how you walk in various shoes. Neutral shoes are best for those without lower-body joint pain and who do not pronate (naturally roll inward on your feet as they land), while stability shoes can help take stress off of toe, ankle, knee and hip joints and correct overpronation.

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Try Before You Buy

When shopping for at-home fitness tools, it’s important to remember that no two people are built the exact same way or have the exact same needs. So, whenever possible, try out any potential buys in person before committing. If you buy online, make sure that the online retailer allows for returns of gently used items. If a pair of sneakers, dumbbells, cuff weights, or anything else don’t feel right to you, keep looking. That’s the only way to curate the RA-friendly home gym you deserve.

K. Aleisha Fetters
Meet Our Writer
K. Aleisha Fetters

Aleisha is a Chicago-based certified strength and conditioning specialist who uses her background in research and communication to help people empower themselves through smart strength training. Other than HealthCentral, Aleisha contributes to publications including Time, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, SELF, and U.S. News & World Report. She is the co-author of The Woman’s Guide to Strength Training. She can usually be spotted in workout clothes and/or eating.