10 Ways to Work Out When You Have RA

by Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) doesn’t mean that you have to give up your active lifestyle. Even when you are experiencing pain and fatigue, there are simple exercises that you can do to stay fit.

Research shows that exercise can help alleviate RA symptoms and even improve day-to-day functioning. It can also improve flexibility, sleep, and endurance. HealthCentral reviews some of the best exercises you can do when living with RA:

Woman swimming.

Swimming Is Light on Your Joints

Swimming is a great way to participate in aerobic exercise while limiting joint impact. Since the water supports your weight, there is minimal stress to your joints. This low impact exercise can be done at any intensity level and can help improve your range of motion. To increase upper body strength, focus on strokes such as freestyle, breast stroke, side stroke, or backstroke. For a lower body workout, try holding onto a kickboard and kicking your feet to propel you through the water.

aqua aerobics

Aqua Aerobics Works Your Entire Body

Aqua aerobics is another exercise that provides minimal stress on your joints. Aerobic exercise in the water offers a great cardiovascular workout for both the upper and lower body. It’s also a good option if you’re not a strong swimmer because the exercises can be performed in the shallow end, where you can stand. Exercising in the water with aqua weights is an excellent way to incorporate strength training without impact on your joints.

two women walking together

Walking Is Easy on Your Joints

Walking is a versatile aerobic exercise that is easy on your joints. It doesn’t matter how fast you walk—you will get the cardiovascular benefits. If the weather outside isn’t conducive to walking, try joining an indoor walking group. An indoor track or treadmill at your local gym is a good option if you can’t walk outside. Try intervals of walking and running if you are not experiencing joint pain with impact exercises. Use a fitness tracker to gradually increase your distance goal.

Strength Training Takes the Stress off

Strength training is crucial in improving muscle elasticity. It will also help take the stress off of weak joints by strengthening the muscles around them. It is an important component of improving balance, range of motion, and bone density. Start with strengthening exercises without added weights, including squats, leg raises, and modified push-ups. Slowly work your way up to using strength training machines or light weights—soup cans or filled water bottles work well.

Senior woman in plank position

Resistance Training Improves Balance

Resistance training uses your own body weight and is less stressful on your joints than traditional weight training. You can use a variety of bands or light weights to perform exercises that will help to improve your balance as well as bone density. Wall squats, modified push-ups, abdominal strengthening exercises, planks, and pelvic bridging are great examples of resistance exercises that can improve your core strength and posture.

Stretching Is Critical

A regular stretching routine is a critical component of any physical fitness program. Stretching helps to increase circulation and blood flow, maintain good range of motion in your upper and lower extremities, improve flexibility, reduce joint stiffness, and develop and achieve strength. Stretching can also help you improve posture and minimize chronic pain in muscles and joints. Resistance bands can also be used in your stretching routine.

Flexibility Exercises Promote Range of Motion

In addition to stretching, incorporating flexibility exercises to increase your range of motion is important to reduce pain and inflammation. Modified yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi are great examples of exercise styles that can help to increase flexibility

Cycling Gets Your Heart Pumping

Outdoor bike riding and indoor spinning are cardiovascular exercises that get your heart rate up quickly. Since cycling is not weight-bearing, it is easier on your joints. Cycling can increase joint mobility and decrease joint stiffness for people living with RA.

Group of women enjoying modern dance fitness class together

Dancing Is Versatile—and Fun!

Dancing is a fun, low-impact way to work out. Whether it’s taking a Zumba class at the gym or doing “Just Dance” at home on your Wii in front of your TV, you’re sure to break a sweat and have a good time while doing it. All dance moves can be modified to be low-impact and easy on your joints. Even gentle kickboxing can be a great way to get your heart rate up without impact or pain.

Kayaking Works Your Upper Body

Kayaking is an excellent upper body workout. It makes you use those often-neglected muscles in your upper back, shoulders, and arms. You can do it at your own pace and enjoy some great outdoor views while you paddle, giving the muscles and joints in your lower body a break for a change. For extra safety, wearing a life jacket while kayaking is recommended.

The Bottom Line

The benefits of exercise for RA are numerous. But listen to your body—don’t proceed with any exercise if you feel pain or discomfort. If you are having a flare, consider dividing up your exercise throughout the day (e.g., walking for 10 minutes at three different times during the day instead of 30 minutes all at once). You will still get the cardiovascular and joint mobility benefits. Talk with your healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns about your exercise program.

Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Meet Our Writer
Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.

Carmen is a Registered Dietitian. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she has spent her career working at Johns Hopkins and is also an adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College. Carmen has over 20 years of experience in nutritional counseling, education, writing, and program management and is a certified specialist in adult weight management. She enjoys educating her students and clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness.