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Rheumatoid Arthritis and Exercise

See Also:-
Blood Pressure
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Weight Training - part 1
Weight Training - part 2

What Is It?

Sally Abel is a UK qualified sport therapist with a BSc (Hons) in Sport & Exercise Science and a member of IIHHT. She has been working in the health and fitness industry for over 5 years. Previous to moving to Spain, she worked for the National Public Health Service on Heart Disease prevention projects.

If you are looking for a personal trainer, or have any questions, you can contact Sally on 00 34 647 275 051.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a common disease which affects more than 350,000 people in Britain. It is an auto-immuno disease in which the body attacks its own healthy tissues that surround a joint, in particular cartilage and the synovial membrane of the joint. (For an explanation on joints see last month's article osteoporosis).

One problem with rheumatoid arthritis is that the symptoms tend to come and go with no particular pattern. You may have 'flare-ups' – periods when the joints become more inflamed and painful. During these flare ups you may have to deal with one or many of the symptoms below. Outside of flare ups, it is possible to lead a normal life, including exercise into your daily lifestyle, which is discussed later on, along with the importance of rest.

The cause of the disease is as yet unknown, one way in which it differs to osteoarthritis.Research is continually being carried out in the hope of finding ananswer, and of course effective treatment, and eventually prevention.

What Are the Symptoms?

It is characterized by the inflammation of the membrane lining the joint, which causes pain, stiffness, warmth, redness and swelling, and therefore irreversable joint damage. Swelling (inflammation) inside joints irritates nerve endings and this causes pain. If bones become damaged this also can be painful. Also, when joints are affected by arthritis, ligaments become slacker. This means that muscles have to work harder to keep the bones in place, and this makes the muscles ache.

Other symptoms include
Loss of appetite
Loss of energy
Other features include lumps (rheumatoid nodules) under the skin in areas subject to pressure (e.g., back of elbows).


RA is normally treated with a combination of different drugs, exercise, rest and alternative therapies. Firstly anti-inflammatorys are used to help reduce swelling and pain in the joint, providing much needed relief for the sufferer. The other type of drugs used are for disease suppression, which help prevent the continuation of damage caused by disease.

RA and exercise
Those that suffer with RA will typically experience a reduction in joint range of motion, muscle strength, endurance and general fitness. So it is important that exercise is used to help reduce these problems.

To many, the idea of exercise combined with RA is a contradiction. Traditional approaches have been toward, total rest with some range of motion exercises. However, recent studies have shown that, muscle strengthening and aerobic exercises are safe, effective and important exercise types for those suffering with RA.

Regular, moderate exercise offers a whole host of benefits to people with arthritis. Mainly, exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness, builds strong muscle around the joints, and increases flexibility and endurance. But it also helps promote overall health and fitness by giving you more energy, helping you sleep better, controlling your weight, decreasing depression, and giving you more self-esteem. Furthermore, exercise can help stave off other health problems such as osteoporosis and heart disease. So the exercise advice for improving fitness, muscle strength and joint mobility are exactly the same as those that suffer from OA (see last months article), but, as RA is a “flare-up” disease, rest is a more important issue.

Balancing Rest and Exercise

One of the most important balancing acts you will need to achieve is the balance between rest and exercise.We have known for centuries that resting inflamed joints makes them more comfortable. During flare-ups, and on a normal day, the signs to stop are if a particular activity causes one or more joints to become warm and swollen or if there is severe pain. If neither of these things happens, keep going.

There is no magic formula which can tell you how to balance rest and exercise – it is something you will need to discover for yourself. Many people suffer the next day because of overexertion on a good day. But above all use both periods of activity and periods of rest to their best advantage.

Always take a lot of care over your footwear if you are playing sport. Good shoes with shock-absorbing soles are essential, as is a good warm-up routine. Swimming is the best exercise of all. The muscles can be exercised with minimal strain on the joints, and the level of activity can be varied from very mild to very strenuous. If you cannot swim, learning to swim could be one of the best investments you can make in your future.

For further information on RA the following web sites are great!

Next month, exercise and arthritis is the topic! So if you have any questions about this or the other subjects already covered, or anything you would like me to write about, please mail the web site! See you next month!

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