Rheumatoid Arthritis Exercises

Should You Do High-intensity Exercise when You Have Rheumatoid Arthritis?

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You have rheumatoid arthritis. The mere idea of pedaling your way through a spin class or hitting the track for a speed workout may make your joints cringe. In fact, for many years, physicians thought that people with arthritis should not exercise at all because of a concern for joint damage. That is no longer true.

ExerciseIt is important that you keep your joints flexible and your muscles strong when you have rheumatoid arthritis. The stronger the supporting structures (such as your muscles) are around your joints, the more flexible you will be. A study from a few years ago, suggests that you may be able to work in some high-intensity exercise—carefully, of course.

The study, which came out of the Department of Rheumatology at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, was published in Clinical Rheumatology. It's called "Long-term follow-up of a high-intensity exercise program in patients with rheumatoid arthritis." You can find a link to the abstract at the bottom of the article, should you want to read it yourself—but we'll go over the key points of this rheumatoid arthritis exercise study to help you figure out how this affects you.

Details on the Rheumatoid Arthritis Exercise Study
The researchers studied 71 patients with rheumatoid arthritis who had participated in a 2-year high-intensity exercise program. They checked back in with those 71 people 18 months after the initial exercise program ended, and they wanted to know if they'd kept up their exercise level. The researchers checked on other levels, including aerobic capacity, muscle strength, and how active their RA was. They also looked for radiological damage of large joints (that means they took x-rays to see how the joints looked).

The researchers found that:

  • 60 of the 71 patients were still doing high-intensity exercises, but they were doing it less often—an average of 2 times a week
  • The patients who continued exercising had better muscle strength (that just makes sense)
  • The exercising patients had similar levels of disease activity as the group who had stopped exercising. That means that the high-intensity exercise didn't speed up the progression of RA in their joints (an important finding).
  • When comparing the joint damage in the exercise and non-exercise group, the exercise group showed a similar level of joint damage. Again, this means that exercise didn't have a detrimental effect on joints.
Updated on: 01/19/16
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Floranne Ernste, MD
This article was reviewed by Floranne Ernste, MD.
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