Rheumatoid arthritis can make exercise feel impossible, but a sedentary lifestyle can actually worsen symptoms. Building strength creates muscles that support joints and take off some of the pressure. Stretching can also help alleviate pain by improving joint function.
The key is sticking to more low-impact exercises, such as yoga and swimming. Read on for some specific moves to try, the best forms of exercise for joint pain, and a few workout tips for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
Weighted Sled Push
Weighted sled pushes may look like something only athletes do, but they're actually suitable for all levels. Best of all, they are low-impact and build strength and stability in multiple joints at once.
Be sure that the sled has an appropriate amount of weight on it. Grab the handles and lean into it with arms extended. As you push, focus on extending your hips and knees as much as possible to enhance your range of motion.
90/90 Hip Switch
A 90/90 hip switch brings gentle motion into the hips to open them up without putting too much strain on them. To try it, sit on the floor with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
Place your heels slightly wider than should-distance apart. Then, drop them both to one side, allowing your torso to naturally shift to the side. Once your knees are as far down as is comfortable, pause, and then shift to the other side, repeating 10 times.
Bridge exercises look just like they sound, because you essentially turn your body into a bridge. A full bridge consists of holding yourself up with your hands and feet so your body becomes an arch, like a rainbow. A variation that's more apt for those with joint pain is the shoulder bridge.
Simply lay on your back with knees bent, then lift your pelvis until your body is straight. Avoid arching your back and hold for a few seconds, then repeat. This exercise helps promote circulation while building leg and glute strength.
Three-Way Hip Exercises
One of the areas that can become sore and weak over time are the hips. To help open them up and get blood circulating, try a gentle three-way hip exercises. To start, hold on to something that can stabilize you, such as a table.
The first way is to lift your knee so it makes a 90-degree angle, then drop it back to the floor and alternate with the other knee. The second way is to swing your leg out to one side and bring it back, alternating legs. Third, extend each leg out behind you one at a time.
Strap-Aided Hamstring Stretches
Painful joints can make bending over to touch your toes feel impossible. One thing that can help is using a strap. Secure the strap around your foot and hold onto it with both hands.
Lie on your back with the strap still intact, and then slowly raise your leg toward the ceiling. Pull on the strap until you feel a gentle stretch through your hamstring. The strap will support the weight of your leg and prevent the need to curl your back.
It may seem silly to think about working out your hands, but many people with arthritis are deeply impacted in their fingers and palms. To keep your hands stronger and limber, alternate between stretching your fingers as wide as possible and then making a fist.
Repeat the motion and try it underwater for added resistance. You can also practice squeezing a stress ball. If that's too painful, try using a foam ball submerged in water instead.
Those with knee pain probably aren't thrilled about the idea of doing lunges. Isometric lunges are different in that they are static. Rather than putting added pressure on the joints by going up and down, you simply hold yourself in place at a comfortable position.
To try it, stand with your shoulders back and core engaged, then take one step forward. Lower your body as far down as is comfortable and hold for 30 seconds. Practice at varying levels to build strength that can better support the knee.
Dumbbell Farmer's Carry
An exercise that combines walking and weights is the dumbbell farmer's carry. All you need to do is carry a dumbbell in each hand and take a few steps forward and a few steps back.
The added weight will force you to engage your core more actively to maintain a proper posture. It can help to imagine you're balancing a book on your head or being pulled upright by a string. Practice for 30-second intervals.
Since shoulders are commonly affected by rheumatoid arthritis, it's especially important to be sure to build strength in the muscle without causing too much tension. Wall slides are an excellent way to do this.
Stand against a wall with your back pressed against it. Then, bend your elbows and lift your arms as though you were mimicking a football goal post. From there, slide your arms up the wall, straightening your elbows. Bring them back down again and repeat for 10 reps.
Chair stands are exactly what they sound like. They help build leg muscles but also give you enough control that they won't overexert your knees. To try it, grab a chair you can easily sit down in.
Sit down, then stand back up, and repeat. If it's too challenging, use your hands for support. If it's easy, find something else to sit on that's lower to the ground. Be sure to go slowly and to engage your muscles, rather than just dropping into the chair.
Water Workouts Take Pressure Off Joints
Water buoyancy can make movements easier by taking some of the pressure off of joints. That's why they're a huge help for those who have too much joint pain to easily move but need to still increase their mobility.
For extra help, you can even use a water jogging belt, which suspends you in the water so there is as little impact on your joints as possible. Simply walking from one side of the pool to the other can make all the difference.
Weight Lifting Builds Strength, But Know Your Limits
Weight lifting may seem like a lot considering strain is the thing to avoid with arthritis. However, it is one of the most effective ways to build strength, and anyone can do it so long as they know their limits.
To start, try some bicep curls with a 2-pound dumbbell. If that's too much, consider doing some water weight lifting. Hold onto foam dumbbells and gently pull down, working against the water's resistance. Let your arms naturally float back up and then repeat.
Tai Chi Improves Balance
Tai Chi is similar to yoga in that it involves a flow of movements that helps improve range of motion. The gentle poses are also are rooted in breathing deeply, connecting mind and body, and promoting relaxation.
The exercise can help strengthen the body and improve balance, taking some of the load off of tender joints. Physician and Tai Chi director Paul Lam recommends that rheumatoid arthritis patients only practice for as long as they can comfortably walk, or about 20 to 40 minutes per day.
Cycling Increases Heart Rate Without Pounding The Joints
Many forms of exercise, such as running, require that you pound on your joints to get your heart rate up. Cycling is one form of cardiovascular exercise that is easier on joints while still building strength.
The benefits of cycling are the same whether you are biking outside or on an upright or recumbent stationary bike. Go with whichever option is the most comfortable and start with 10-minute intervals, increasing the length to 30 or 40 minutes over time.
Walking Is Low-Impact
Low-impact exercises are paramount for those with rheumatoid arthritis, and walking is one of the most accessible forms out there. If it isn't too painful, start by walking for just ten minutes a day at a moderate difficulty level and speed.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends aiming for 60% to 85% of your maximum heart rate when getting started. From there, you can build up to 30-minute sessions three to five days a week, increasing the difficulty level as needed.
Suspense Training Intensifies Core Workouts
Since many rheumatoid arthritis patients are limited in their range of motion, it can be challenging to keep the core strong. That's why suspense training can be helpful for those who don't have serious wrist or ankle issues.
The exercise consists of suspending your weight with the use of straps. The straps give you more control over how your weight is distributed and offer a wide range of core workouts to try that are gentle on joints.
Gardening Increases Endorphins
Gardening requires just enough activity to increase mobility without being harsh on joints. Research also shows that it releases endorphins, which play a role in pain relief. According to orthopedic rehabilitation specialist Gary Calabrese, endorphins can reduce arthritis pain.
While any form of exercise will contribute to this benefit, gardening has the added boost of being outside in nature. Just be sure you don't get too carried away, as the repetitive motion of digging and being in a fixed position can have adverse effects.
Zumba Is Fluid Enough To Be Easy On Joints
Zumba is a Latin-inspired style of fitness dance that increases heart rate without being hard on joints. Exercise physiologist Caryn Locke explains that the fluidity of the movements makes it easier for rheumatoid arthritis patients such as herself.
Since it involves moving the entire body, start out by just trying it once or twice a week. Over time, your body will become stronger and more limber as it adjusts. You can also modify the movements to your comfort level.
The Elliptical Increases Endurance
Training on an elliptical machine is an excellent way to increase endurance without putting heavy impact on joints. The machine mimics the motion of running while keeping you on the ground, thus preventing the jolt of landing on each foot.
It also incorporates arm strength more than cycling does, building more strength throughout the body as you level up. Start at a resistance level that is comfortable and increase gradually to build endurance and mobility.
Qi Gong Combines Meditation And Movement
Qi Gong is similar to Tai Chi in that it focuses on slow movements that gently build strength. Physiologist Tess Franklin explained one practice that illustrates how the discipline softly works.
She says to sit tall in a chair, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. As you breathe in your nose and out your mouth, place a hand on your stomach and feel the diaphragm move. Focus on activating your core muscles to hold a firm posture with each breath.
Yoga Builds Strength And Flexibility At The Same Time
Yoga is an excellent form of exercise for those with arthritis because it combines strength building and flexibility. At the same time, it's important to stick to a style and level that isn't overly strenuous.
Yoga specialist Robin Rothenberg advises avoiding hot yoga, power yoga, and Vinyasa yoga as they can put strain on the joints and increase internal heat. Instead, stick to restorative yoga or Nidra yoga to gently increase mobility and reduce joint inflammation.
Build Up To Challenges
When it comes to dealing with joint pain, less is more. While it's important to push yourself to build strength, be sure that you ease into it to avoid doing more harm than good. Condition your muscles properly before doing something challenging.
It's also beneficial to incorporate warm-ups and cool-downs into workouts, especially as they become more strenuous. Start with more simple exercises and build up to the challenging ones in both your overall strength building and daily routines.
Adjust According To How You Feel
While exercise in general can help ease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, it's still important to listen to your body. When experiencing a flare-up, be sure to modify your exercise routine accordingly.
Sticking to a regimen is an important part of creating improvement, but that can go right out the window if you push yourself too hard. Cut down on the time or lower the intensity when experiencing pain or swelling to allow the body to recover.
Do Multiple Short Bursts Rather Than One Long Activity
Even if something feels simple, like going for a walk, doing any activity for too long is bound to cause strain. This is especially true for those with rheumatoid arthritis since joints can easily become inflamed.
If you want to up your exercise routine, consider doing activities for a short amount of time throughout the day. This way, your body has time to recover in between sets, rather than getting increasingly worn down over time.
Create An All-Inclusive Routine
Some moves on this list may be more intriguing than others, but it's important to try to create a well-balanced routine. Aerobic activities like cycling are just as important as resistance training with weights.
Furthermore, endurance and strength are best executed when the body is properly stretched and flexible. Try to build a routine that hits all of these areas, and mix it up over time so that your body doesn't get used to anything.