This is why rheumatoid arthritis sufferers should try to stay active

The mention of arthritis tends to bring to mind the aches and pains of growing old. Rheumatoid arthritis, however, is a whole other ballgame. A devastating, chronic disease, rheumatoid arthritis can come on suddenly, changing lives almost overnight.

Over 300,000 Canadians are living with this condition, and although more common in individuals over 40, it can be diagnosed at all ages. As a result, people with rheumatoid arthritis suffer severe joint pain, swelling (or inflammation), reduced strength, and most importantly, decreased physical function.

Simply put, physical function relates to being able to carry out day-to-day activities like buttoning up shirts, tying shoes, or holding cups. Because of these symptoms, people with rheumatoid arthritis tend to be less active and heavier than their healthy counterparts.

Challenges of Rheumatoid Arthritis

When you’re exhausted and it hurts to move, it’s easy to think that resting more will help you feel better. Because the symptoms of this condition come and go, people with rheumatoid arthritis normally have good and bad days. Finding ways to manage and possibly reverse some of these symptoms is a key treatment goal. Being able to enjoy many different activities is important, as depending on the day, swelling and pain may make it difficult to be active.

Benefits to Being Active

Physical activity is good for everybody, but has additional benefits for people living with rheumatoid arthritis. Proper exercise programs have been shown to improve physical function and heart health, increasing muscle mass and strength, and promoting healthy bodyweights without aggravating symptoms. Physical activity can also reduce pain, morning stiffness, inflammation and even fatigue.

New studies suggest high-intensity exercise may provide more benefits than low-intensity ones, while also increasing flexibility and range of motion are important for healthy bones and joints. Most importantly, finding activities or environments that are enjoyable help people stay active. Below are some physical activity suggestions that you can try on your own.


To improve heart health:

Typically, people with rheumatoid arthritis have poor heart health, mainly from chronic swelling and the disease itself. Cycling, walking, swimming, and dancing are great activities to help get your heart pumping. Try to participate in these activities 30-60 minutes per session, 3-5 times per week. It is important to take into account how you are feeling that day and modify your exercise routine accordingly.

To increase muscle mass and strength:

Consider using free weights, weight machines, and therabands to build muscle. When doing resistance exercises, aim for 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions. Targeting larger muscle groups (chest, back, quads and glutes) will give you the best bang for your buck. Aim for weight-bearing exercises, 2-3 days per week.

To increase range of motion, flexibility and improve joint health:

Stretching, yoga, pilates, and tai chi are great examples of ways to improve flexibility and range of motion. These exercises have notable physical benefits, but are also important to help specific joints feel better and more mobile. Performing these exercises for 10-15 minutes twice a week will help reduce stress and fatigue, and manage inflammation.

This post was written by Nathan Chiarlitti, who is currently completing a M.Sc. in Kinesiology and Physical Education from McGill University. His research interests include physical activity in clinical populations and exercise physiology in sport contexts.