About 1.3 million Americans suffer from the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). You may think a RA medication like Meloxicam is your only treatment option, but research shows adding a variety of fitness programs also helps relieve RA symptoms. Regular physical activity can alleviate inflammation, stiffness, pain, fatigue and depression. It also may improve mobility, muscle strength, joint function and sleep while boosting your energy. Working out might delay the onset of disability. Consult your doctor before supplementing your prescriptions with fitness training.
Strategize for Success
Jessica Gordon, M.D., a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery, offers five tips to incorporate exercise into your RA treatment.
Customize your plan. Match your exercise style to your medical condition(s), RA body locations and physical abilities.
Consult a therapist. See a physical therapist who works with large body joints or an occupational therapist who specializes in smaller hand joints. Either can tailor specific exercises to target and strengthen your problematic areas.
Choose enjoyable physical activities. You’re more likely to stay active if you pick workouts you like.
Make your goals attainable. Be realistic with your expectations to avoid disappointment. Your therapist can help you set appropriate health-enhancing objectives. If you’re out-of-practice, start slowly by walking just 10 minutes per day. Work your way up to 20 minutes gradually before attempting longer sessions. If you’re already physically active, set higher goals. Maybe start out jogging slowly, building up to a faster pace over time.
Follow your program. Consistent exercise and joint use will continue to improve your health, well-being, fatigue and function.
Is Aerobic Exercise the Answer?
Low-impact stretching, swimming, water aerobics and walking are gentle on tender joints. At the gym, choose a cardio machine, stationary bike or elliptical trainer. These aerobic exercises strengthen muscles, build stamina, facilitate movement, improve balance and make everyday activities easier while increasing your self-worth and confidence. Even light activity prompts your brain to release endorphins, which lower joint pain and lift your mood.
According to a study published in the Arthritis Care and Research Journal, an hour of low-impact aerobic exercise three days a week can decrease RA symptoms like pain, fatigue and depression significantly.
Can Yoga Be Your Remedy?
A blend of physical exercise and mental relaxation or meditation, yoga originated at least 5000 years ago in ancient India. Today, people practice over 100 yoga types regularly worldwide. RA patients find yoga is easy on their joints, relieves their symptoms and promotes relaxation.
According to a new review of nine studies, yoga reduced pain, morning stiffness, psychological distress and related depression while improving physical function. Between 2010 and June 2013, hundreds of participants performed yoga in universities, hospitals and community settings. Study lengths ranged from twice a day for one week to once a week for up to 16 weeks.
The authors from the University of Cincinnati’s Health Promotion and Education Program concluded that yoga’s muscle-stretching routine alleviates physical symptoms around affected joints. In addition to positive physiological outcomes, they noted psychological ones as well. They reported that yoga decreased stress, which exacerbates arthritis. It improved patients’ coping skills and provided spiritual solace by enhancing subjects’ life perspectives.
Join an RA yoga class if possible. If not, the Arthritis Foundation recommends choosing Lyengar or other gentle forms instead of Astanga, Bikram, Body Pump or Power yoga. A small class with an instructor who will modify poses to your needs is best for beginners. Attempt 60 percent of what you feel capable of doing. Then build up your degree of stretching or speed. Avoid the standard tree pose and others that require balancing on one foot. Skip the traditional frog pose and ones that necessitate bending your knees more than 90 degrees. Modify these poses to accommodate your limited flexibility.
Will Tai Chi Transform Your Function?
Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese martial art, has enhanced quality of life through purposeful stances, movements, concentration and breathing for centuries. Modern people appreciate its low-impact, weight-bearing aerobic benefits to ease pain and improve physical condition. This form of moving meditation teaches your body to glide slowly in fluid motions. You flow gracefully from one soothing yet conscious position to another. Through continuous motion, you achieve strength in posture, focus and deep, relaxed breathing.
Many studies deem tai chi an effective aerobic activity with muscle-strengthening advantages. Research shows these exercise types reduce pain and stiffness and while improving mobility, mood and quality of life for most adult RA patients. A study found that this low-intensity, low-impact exercise can lessen pain and improve lower limb muscle function, movement, balance and confidence. One 12-week study demonstrated that two Tai Chi sessions per week improved RA disease activity and health-related quality of life. Studies report that tai chi’s controlled motions are beneficial for RA and that patients tend to become long-term proponents.
You can practice tai chi alone or in a group indoors or outside and with virtually no equipment. Check to see if a community center near you or your local Arthritis Foundation chapter offers tai chi classes.
Are You Ready for Relief?
Combining your RA medication with a personalized exercise plan may help you manage your RA or even achieve remission — freedom from some or all of your RA symptoms.