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Exercise can reduce pain and improve function in people who have rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Also, exercise may help prevent the buildup of scar tissue, which can lead to weakness and stiffness. Exercise for arthritis takes three forms: stretching, strengthening, and conditioning.
Stretching involves moving joint and muscle groups through and slightly beyond their normal range of motion and holding them in position for at least 15 to 30 seconds. See pictures of various stretches. If stretching is uncomfortable, try to at least move every joint through its full range of motion every day.
Strengthening involves moving muscles against some resistance. Strengthening exercise helps people who have rheumatoid arthritis stay more active and able to do their daily activities, and it even seems to help their outlook.footnote 1 There are two types of strengthening exercises:
See pictures of basic muscle-strengthening exercises and muscle-strengthening with free weights.
Conditioning exercise improves aerobic fitness. Conditioning exercise is safe for people whose rheumatoid arthritis is under control. It may help reduce pain and help you stay more active. footnote 2Conditioning, or aerobic, exercises include walking, biking, swimming, or water exercise. A target heart rate can guide you to how hard you should exercise so you can get the most aerobic benefit from your workout.
Use this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?
Target heart rate is only a guide. Each individual is different, so pay attention to how you feel while you exercise.
Note that even moderate activity, such as walking, can improve your health and may prevent disability from rheumatoid arthritis.
Pay special attention to your hands if you have rheumatoid arthritis. If your hands are stiff and sore, it's hard to do your daily activities. See pictures of some basic hand exercises to help you stay strong and flexible.
Be sure to follow your doctor's advice about your exercise program. For most people, physical activity does not pose any problem or hazard. For some people, some forms of physical activity might be unsafe or should be started only after talking with a doctor. See a list of exercise cautions to consider before starting any exercise or fitness program.
For more information on exercise, see the topic Fitness.
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CitationsO'Dell JR (2013). Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. In GS Firestein et al., eds., Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1137–1160. Philadelphia: Saunders.Baillet A, et al. (2010). Efficacy of cardiorespiratory aerobic exercise in rheumatoid arthritis: Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arthritis Care and Research, 62(7): 984–992.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineSpecialist Medical ReviewerNancy Ann Shadick, MD, MPH - Rheumatology
Current as ofJune 11, 2018
Current as of: June 11, 2018
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Nancy Ann Shadick, MD, MPH - Rheumatology
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