Finding the right physical activity for you
Claire Jeffries (British physiotherapist) and Karen Tsui (Canadian physiotherapist)
Physiotherapists share their views on how you can get active despite your RA.
Jumping out of bed and being physically active is likely to be the last thing on your mind when you wake up stiff, with sore joints and feel exhausted. However, research has shown that physical activity can be beneficial for those living with RA.1
Combining some cardiovascular exercise and strengthening into your physical activities is really important and the research shows that your condition is not accelerated / made worse if you do push yourself a bit more in these areas. Here are a few tips to help you find the right physical activities for you.1
You may experience a little bit of discomfort when you exercise or just after; this is normal and should not put you off from doing more physical activities. Listen to your body but do not be afraid to move it and give it a work out.
Q: How can I reduce the stiffness in my legs?
A: Every great exercise routine includes a good stretch. Stretching can reduce stiffness, lengthen and increase flexibility in your muscles, all while helping you maintain the range of motion in your joints.2 Start by aiming high and reaching for the sky, then bend forward and you might just touch your toes. Try holding different muscle stretches for 20 seconds or longer before releasing. Make sure to avoid stretching a swollen and inflamed joint.
Q: I worry that exercise will cause further pain to my swollen joints. Is there an activity I can do that puts minimal impact on my affected joints?
A: Remember to listen to your body. Pain doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop your physical activity. Often it may just be your body’s way of telling you that you may have just done too much. Try doing less the next time, and build up the length of time, intensity or distance more slowly.
The easiest low-impact activity can be as simple as going for a walk, either on land or walking in the pool. Why not call a friend and go for a walk round your nearest park or green space? Walking is great exercise for your joints and, your heart – fresh air can also lift your mood. Besides being fantastic for your health, it’s incredibly convenient as you can walk anywhere, and it doesn’t cost you anything! Top tips to get you ready for a walk include keeping hydrated and wearing supportive and comfortable footwear.2
Q: I would like to improve my aerobic fitness, but I’m concerned running will put too much pressure on my joints. What aerobic exercises are low-impact?
A: There are many activities that are high on fun and low on impact. Aquatic activities are amongst the best for people with painful joints as the water supports your weight relieving the pressure on your bones. When the water is warm it may also help to soothe pain. Exercising in water is a great way to have fun while building up your aerobic fitness and improving movement in your body.3
Swimming is also a good option for getting a full body workout but with less strain on your joints and tissue. It can also help you keep your weight under control, alleviate stress and may help improve your sleep.2
Q: RA often makes me feel stressed and anxious. Does exercise help fight this?
A: These feelings are very common for people living with RA, as the condition can be very tough to deal with. Exercise not only strengthens your body but can strengthen your mind as well. Activities such as yoga, pilates or tai chi are practises that use breathing techniques, meditation and flowing movements to help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety or depression. These practices, though gentle in nature on the body, are also known to increase flexibility, range of motion and improve balance – all of which can help day to day movements for patients with RA. Lots of these classes are now also adapted so you can do them in a sitting position so if you are not feeling 100% one day you can still do some exercise and get the benefits that come with it. 2,4,5