The How To Guide: Exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory condition that affects the joints in your body. Considered an auto-immune condition, this means that the cells that attack what could make us sick are attacking our joints because they think they are a virus.IMG_2656

Over the last several decades there has been a lot of new therapies for RA. Medications are better, diagnosis is sooner and so many people with RA are doing very well in their day to day lives. However, 40-80% of people
with RA experience quite a bit of tiredness or fatigue
. They also have pain in their joints that can change over time. The pain in RA ebbs and flows, has what is called exacerbations (where the pain is worse) and remissions (where the pain and inflammation have subsided). Because of this, getting started on an exercise program can be really challenging. You’re tired and in pain … what makes you want to lace up your running shoes?!

What the research has shown us is that it is really important that we exercise!

Exercise has been shown to improve the symptoms of RA – including fatigue (counterintuitive I know)! People who exercise consistently with RA also feel that they have more of a handle on their condition and can manage the symptoms better. This is true even if you have the exact same symptoms as your non-exercising peer. Exercise also is important in weight management. Not only are you more likely to get RA in the first place if you are overweight or obese, you are also less likely to have remissions in symptoms and less likely for those remissions to last.

IMG_2655Plus, exercise is important for all of our body systems. It is how we keep our heart, mind and muscles healthy too which is important even if our joints hurt.

So here are three tips on how to get started. It is a process and you don’t need to be perfect but it is important that you start.

1. Protect your joints by doing activities that don’t hurt! If your feet are bothering you, doing something high impact like running or Zumba isn’t the answer. It’ll flare up your joints even more and then you won’t be able to do anything else for days. Try swimming, or lift weights for your upper body or other muscles that don’t hurt. There is always a work around. Talking to a physiotherapist may help you figure out an exercise program that works within your limits!

2. Know your energy levels. When you are the most tired is when you are least likely to be able to exercise. Know yourself and your energy levels throughout the day and plan your exercise when you feel like you have a bit more energy. It could be around your medications or just time of day. I know this might sometimes feel like its draining the energy you DO have but watch what happens… when you start becoming consistent, overall your fatigue will go down.

3. Be gradual with exercise. Often when we start exercise programs, we do too much too fast. Our motivation is at an all time high. We want to conquer the world one sit up or push up at a time. With RA, pushing too hard can make the fatigue rebound and last longer than we want it to. If your tiredness gets worse, it will be even harder to motivate yourself to keep moving. You don’t need to be sore everyday or exhausted for exercise to have the desired effects. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

By starting here and taking slow steps, you will eventually build an exercise routine that works for your body and your condition and reap the benefits of exercise in your every day life. If you need an accountability buddy, grab a friend to help you out – we all could use it!

Check out our FAQs on rheumatoid arthritis and the differences between rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Knowledge is power for managing your symptoms.


Larkin, L., Gallagher, S., Cramp, F., Brand, C., Fraser, A., & Kennedy, N. (2015). Behaviour change interventions to promote physical activity in rheumatoid arthritis: A systematic review. Rheumatology International, 35(10), 1631-1640. doi:10.1007/s00296-015-3292-3 [doi]

Veldhuijzen van Zanten, J. J., Rouse, P. C., Hale, E. D., Ntoumanis, N., Metsios, G. S., Duda, J. L., & Kitas, G. D. (2015). Perceived barriers, facilitators and benefits for regular physical activity and exercise in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: A review of the literature. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 45(10), 1401-1412. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0363-2 [doi]

Verhoeven, F., Tordi, N., Prati, C., Demougeot, C., Mougin, F., & Wendling, D. (2016). Physical activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Joint, Bone, Spine : Revue Du Rhumatisme, 83(3), 265-270. doi:10.1016/j.jbspin.2015.10.002 [doi]

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Christina Prevett

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