Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis

As part of a well-rounded treatment strategy, it is important to include exercise for rheumatoid arthritis. Though it may seem difficult or challenging to exercise, especially when dealing with chronic pain, physical activity is necessary to increase joint function, strengthen muscles, and improve overall health and energy levels.

While exercise is very important in rheumatoid arthritis treatment, there are a few risks. Be sure to practice safe exercises and combine them with stretching and strength building activities for better physical health.

How Does Exercise Help Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis causes several different physical emotional symptoms from poor mobility and chronic pain to depression and lack of energy. Physical exercise is strongly recommended for rheumatoid arthritis patients to reduce pain and prevent these symptoms from affecting their quality of life.

Moderate and regular physical activity helps to keep joints and muscles in motion and build muscle strength. This is important for rheumatoid arthritis patients who may begin to notice severe decreases in mobility and increases in painful stiffness. Physical activity and controlled stretching can also help to increase flexibility which is necessary for those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis to be able to continue to perform day-to-day activities.

Additionally, by performing consistent physical activity, cardiovascular strength improves which helps prevent heart disease and other medical complications that relate to rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis patients also tend to suffer from chronic fatigue, depression, and immune system complications that make them more susceptible to infections and illness. Exercise can counter these negative outcomes by improving emotional wellbeing, increasing energy levels, and boosting immune system function.

Benefits of Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis

There are some important benefits of developing a consistent and balanced exercise plan for rheumatoid arthritis. Here are some of the top benefits of exercise for rheumatoid arthritis:

  • Fight against fatigue and improve sleep patterns
  • Improve energy levels
  • Increase range of motion
  • Improve joint flexibility
  • Reduce joint pain
  • Increase bone and muscle strength
  • Prevent heart disease and other medical complications
  • Boost immune system function
  • Improve emotional and mental wellbeing by countering depression

Just as patients take specialized medications regularly, so too should they exercise regularly to improve health and fight against disease symptoms.

When to Exercise With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Forms of physical activity or stretching should be performed daily even if only for 10 minutes. The key is to exercise consistently even at a slower pace, as opposed to exercising vigorously but infrequently.

Though you may exercise, go for a walk or do stretches daily, it may become difficult to continue during a flare-up. If you have concerns about exercising during a flare-up speak to your doctor or physical therapist about activity options that are less stressful on joints. It’s important to reduce discomfort during a flare-up and there may be simpler exercise options that are more suitable for you.

Types of Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Those with rheumatoid arthritis can still perform regular physical activities and even play certain sports. Depending on the disease stage, many rheumatoid arthritis patients continue to stick to their regular exercise routines or modify them to protect joints from stress and further damage.

Some common and recommended exercises for rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Walking
  • Bicycling
  • Swimming
  • Movement
  • Strength building


Walking is good for the body and the mind. It helps increase mobility in muscles and joints without a lot of stressful impact. Walking also helps to improve cardiovascular system and maintain overall levels of physical health.

There are countless places to walk and it can be combined with social activity as well. Start out walking slowly and for 30 minutes and gradually build your way up. Walking for just half an hour each day can make a big difference in relieving joint stiffness and improving mood levels.


Bicycling is an excellent cardiovascular exercise which is critical for rheumatoid arthritis patients in preventing heart disease. Biking either stationary or on flat roads and pathways is a low-impact activity and easy on the joints.

By performing regular bike exercise, patients can improve their leg muscle strength and decrease morning stiffness. oVer time, patients will notice a difference in joint mobility and overall levels of health.


Swimming is a great way to improve joint function. Research has shown that exercising in water, also known as hydrotherapy, is the most effective form of physical activity for rheumatoid arthritis patients.

Many patients who do water exercises such as swimming or water aerobics see tremendous improvements in joint pain and stiffness. It is also associated with better emotional happiness and overall wellbeing.


Movement exercises like yoga and tai chi are effective and low-impact forms of stimulating body activity, improving flexibility, and stretching and strengthening muscles. Rheumatoid arthritis patients who perform movement exercise benefit from reduced joint pain and stiffness.

Both forms of movement activities are also linked to lower depression and reduced stress levels. These activities include meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing in addition to physical exercise.

Strength Building

Patients working with a physical therapist may work with them to build muscle strength through the use of free weights, resistance bands, and weight machines. By strengthening muscles, it reduces the amount of stress placed on weakened joints as the muscles around them grow stronger and more supportive.

With stronger muscles, daily activities that were once difficult to perform with rheumatoid arthritis can become easier again. Patients often find their ability to grip and lift items improves because of their increased muscle strength.

Stretches for Rheumatoid Arthritis

In addition to building muscle and cardiovascular strength, rheumatoid arthritis patients should also incorporate stretching into their daily routines. Stretching is necessary for everyone to improve flexibility and range of motion. It is especially important for those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis and experience daily morning stiffness.

Here are some of the stretches to perform in the morning and before any physical activity:

  • Leg and hamstring stretches by reaching to touch your toes with bent knees
  • Finger and wrist stretches by bending and lifting wrists and curling and flexing fingers
  • Cross-body arm stretches and reaching overhead to stretch out arms and shoulders
  • Neck and shoulder stretches through gentle and slow head rotations

By holding stretching positions for 10 to 20 seconds and doing a variety of stretches daily, it will improve flexibility and mobility. Perform a variety of stretches within the first hour of the day as well as before any planned physical activity.

Making Your Exercise Plan

Exercise for rheumatoid arthritis is critical in the overall treatment plan. However, appropriate types and levels of exercise depend on the disease stage and each patient’s unique case. Talk to your rheumatologist about the recommend types of exercise that will work best for you.

You may also consider working directly with a physical therapist for additional support. Always be sure to protect your health and not push your body too hard. Light, consistent exercise can go a long way towards improving rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and enhancing wellbeing.