Thrifty Home Fitness Tips for RA

by Marianna Paulson, B.Ed., B.P.E.-O.R. Patient Advocate

When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it is important to do what you can to maintain or, even better, improve your fitness level. Regular exercise can help you preserve your mobility, sustain your health, increase resilience, improve your sleep, and help ward off feelings of hopelessness and depression. You can do a lot from home. Before embarking on any form of exercise, be sure to check with your doctor. You may also get some exercise ideas from your physical therapist.

Piggy bank in house entrance
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Fitness doesn't have to be costly

You can join a gym to exercise, but that can get expensive — especially if your interest wanes or your health deteriorates to the point where you are unable to attend. At home, however, you can use items you already have to improve your fitness level. By customizing your exercises to suit your ability, then sneaking them between your regular activities, you can build your strength, improve your balance, and increase your endurance and flexibility.

Sitting on a stability ball as an office chair
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Balance is at your core

Core strength is crucial for RA. The article “Core Training: Not Just for Abs” reminds us that “the core muscles help stabilize the spine and pelvis and are key in transferring energy from your torso to the smaller muscles of your arms and legs. The concept is that if the center is strong and stable, the whole body will move more efficiently.” You can passively work on your core by swapping your desk chair for a stability ball. If you're not ready for that, try a stability/balance cushion.

Woman carrying full laundry basket
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Build muscle with weights

Your muscular system is an important ally in your journey with RA. Strong muscles support your posture, provide stability to your joints, and help to prevent falls. Stronger muscles enable you to move better. Regardless of where you are on the fitness spectrum, it is never too late for weight training. If you don't have any dumbbells at home, start by using cans of food. Move on to extending and lifting the laundry basket, detergent bottles, or other heavy objects.

Woman exercising against the bed
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Use your bed, stairs, and step stool

If you are unable to get down on the floor, try doing leg lifts and stretches on the bed. If you have a coffee table the size of a small tank like we do, put it to use. Do you have stairs in your home? If the landing is big enough, you can use it for floor work. Stand two or three steps down from the landing at the top of the stairs, grab the handrail, and you should be able to lower yourself to sit down on the landing. Stairs and step stools offer other exercise opportunities.

Woman using resistance band on a yoga mat
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Stretch and strengthen with resistance bands

If you've spent any time with a physical therapist, you probably became acquainted with resistance bands. They're long, stretchy pieces of latex that are color-coded to indicate different levels of resistance. Resistance bands have a great deal of flexibility (pun intended!) in the types of exercises you can do with them. They're lightweight and portable so you can take them to work or tuck them into your suitcase when you travel.

Person Sweeping Mess on Hardwood Floor with Broom
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Housework and gardening also counts!

The next time you pick up a broom, hold it loosely behind you, palms up, and parallel to the floor. Then, without bending over, slowly raise your arms up behind you. Hold, lower, and repeat. Once you're done sweeping, don't forget to take a dance around your floor for some more sneaky fitness. Reach and stretch when you dust and vacuum. Enjoy being outside while you get fit.

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More sneaky exercises

While you're waiting for your coffee to brew, use your counter to s-t-r-e-t-c-h. You have a built-in safety “bar” as you practice the “flamingo,” which is a move in which you balance on one leg, then the other. It can help prevent falls and work on your balance. Work out your frustrations at the grocery store by sneaking in the flamingo and other cart-related exercises. Who knows, you may just start a new exercise trend!

Family hula hooping together
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Hula hoops, skipping ropes, and bouncing balls

If you are a parent, your playground days may serve as a fun catalyst to get you moving. Involve your children and build some memories as you improve your fitness level. Go outside and have a hula hoop session. Play some bouncing ball games like sevens, or scroll down in the comments section of this post for Billy Baloo. If skipping is more your thing, rhyme your way into endurance with some of these skipping songs.

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Remember to dance

If you spend a lot of time at your desk or in front of the television, take frequent dance breaks. It’s a fun, easy way to put some boogie into your woogie. In their newsletter, Berkeley Wellness reminds you of “The Many Health Benefits of Dancing.” Adjust the intensity level by the music you choose, and waltz, jive, polka, two-step, twist, disco, or hip-hop your way into better health. Do you need inspiration? Check out “The Evolution of Dance.”

Man measuring pulse and heart rate during workout
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"HIIT" it for fitness!

High-intensity interval training (HIIT), demonstrates that you can get fit without hours of gym time. A July 2016 study in PLOS concludes “… that both short-term HIIT and MVCT [moderate-to-vigorous intensity continuous training] improve cardiorespiratory fitness, however HIIT is more time-efficient and enjoyable for the subjects.” Consult with an expert to find a program that suits your abilities. I particularly like this MASHUP™ YouTube video because it offers different levels of intensity.

Marianna Paulson walking her dog
Janine Cooney

Dog walking is good for you

One reason why I like having a dog is that it forces me to get out for a walk every day. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat...well, you get the picture. Although some days are harder than others, the overall joy my four-legged “gym” provides is worth the effort. If you do decide to get a dog, it helps to have back-up plans for when you are flaring, such as a substitute dogwalker.

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Go outside

Brad Carlson, a chronic RA sufferer, says, “There’s nothing like the beach and the ocean to deal with stress.'” There are other places besides the beach or ocean where you can get a helping of healing nature while you pursue your fitness goals. Whether it is forest bathing (a common practice in Japan), a walk in the park, cycling around the neighborhood, or a romp in your backyard with your children, exercise all goes better with the joys of nature.

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Go jump in the lake!

Any article I write about fitness is going to include some form of water activity. If you live close to a swimmable body of water, make sure you take advantage of this RA-perfect exercise. Swimming allows you to enjoy weightlessness while you do your range of motion (ROM) exercises. Add in some resistance training, increase your endurance, and finish with a relaxing float; you'll exit the water refreshed and relaxed. Don't be surprised if you end up sleeping like a baby.

Marianna Paulson, B.Ed., B.P.E.-O.R.
Meet Our Writer
Marianna Paulson, B.Ed., B.P.E.-O.R.

Marianna Paulson is known as AuntieStress. On her website, you’ll find links to her two award-winning blogs, Auntie Stress Café and A Rheumful of Tips. When she is not helping clients (and herself) address stress, she keeps active by swimming, dog walking, and taking frequent dance breaks. She takes steps in a number of different directions in order to work on being a “Superager.” She may have RA, but it doesn’t have her! “Choose to be optimistic. It feels better.” - Dalai Lama XIV