Benefits of exercise for rheumatoid arthritis patients

5/16/2016 by Elliot Bruhl, MD

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Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be a challenge; despite the availability of many new treatments for this disease, most patients still struggle with some degree of fatigue, joint stiffness and discomfort. Studies have shown that exercise does not have detrimental effects on disease activity or pain, and most patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis will feel better with regular exercise, and live longer as well.

  • Regular exercise helps to prevent pain and stiffness in joints.
  • Exercise helps to reduce and maintain a healthy weight. This is important as excess weight places more stress on joints which are already affected by the disease. Controlling your weight helps to control your arthritis.
  • Exercise can help to prevent coronary atherosclerosis (heart disease), which is more common and more severe in patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis causes fatigue, so don’t forget to rest your entire body by taking a nap, in addition to your exercise.

How much exercise is needed? Most people are surprised to learn that they do not need to become an Olympic athlete to reap the health benefits of regular activity. Moderate activity, such as a brisk walk, raking leaves, or vacuuming the house for 30 minutes four or five times a week is enough to have a significant positive effect on your health, sense of well-being, and longevity.  Swimming is a particularly good choice as the buoyancy of the water reduces the impact on joints.   Simply walking in the pool can be effective exercise and easy on the knees, hips and ankles.  Many locations offer pool aerobics classes which are becoming popular.

For patients with significant joint involvement from their arthritis, ask your provider for a referral to physical therapy for a customized exercise program. Many options are available for modified exercise to accommodate various stages of the disease. Physical and Occupational therapists can assist you in other ways as well to help keep you active – they can provide you with splints which allow support and or rest for affected joints, they can provide heat and ultrasound therapies for joints that are stiff or painful, and they can provide directly supervised exercise when needed, to build back strength and range of motion which have been lost due to arthritis and inactivity.

Whatever you choose, find a way to be active!

Dr. Elliot Bruhl is a family physician practicing primary care medicine in Employee and Community Health's Department of Family Medicine at Mayo Family Clinic Northwest, where he also serves as the clinic's medical director.