For Better or Worse: The Relationship Between Rheumatoid Arthritis Flare-Ups and Exercise

We all know that exercise is good for us, but certain health conditions can make physical activity challenging. Consider rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This chronic inflammatory disorder affects the joints, causing pain and swelling that may hinder mobility.

For people with RA, staying active may be difficult — and might leave them wondering whether exercise helps their condition or makes it worse. Understanding the effects of exercise on RA can help you determine a fitness routine that accommodates (and maybe even relieves) your RA symptoms.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

RA is an autoimmune disorder, meaning it occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissue (including your joints and organs).

In addition to painful swelling of the joints, symptoms of RA include:

  • Joint stiffness and tenderness
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness

RA symptoms that affect the joints often occur on both sides of the body (both knees or both hands, for example).

RA Symptoms and Exercise

With RA, symptoms tend to come and go periodically. When symptoms are especially bad, this is known as a flare. During RA flares, it is best to take it easy and rest as much as possible. In other words, exercise may not be the best thing for your body and you should wait until your symptoms ease before resuming physical activity.

During periods where RA isn’t flaring and symptoms are less severe, exercise can be beneficial for overall physical and mental well-being. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which may help keep RA symptoms in check.

One study of people with RA found that participants who were overweight/obese and lost 10 pounds or more had three-fold increased odds of improved disease activity compared to those who did not.

Some types of exercise are better than others for people with RA. Recommended activities include:

  • Stretching
  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Swimming


If you’re able to do some very gentle exercises while in a flare, great! If not, that’s okay. Listen to your body and take all the rest time you need.

When to See a Doctor

RA can’t be cured, but it can be managed. If RA is negatively affecting your quality of life — including your ability to exercise — it’s worth seeking the guidance of a specialist who can design a treatment plan that meets your unique needs.

Treatment options for RA include:

  • Medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), steroids, and biologics
  • Lifestyle changes such as adjusting your diet and exercise habits
  • Surgeries such as knee replacement and hip replacement.

Together, you and your doctor can figure out the best way to manage your RA so you can lead a full and active life. Learn more about arthritis and how physical therapy can help. 


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