Exercise can often be a double-edged sword for people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
On one hand, a certain degree of physical activity is encouraged for people dealing with the sometimes debilitating condition.
On the other hand, many people with RA feel that most types of workouts are too difficult or painful given their symptoms.
“I know I feel better if I exercise,” Laura Davidson, a Michigan resident with RA, told Healthline. “But at the same time I know it could also make me more sore. I feel like I’d be healthier if I moved more and maybe eventually have less pain. But the fear of hurting myself or causing a flare-up holds me back.”
Davidson isn’t alone in this sentiment.
However, a new study does show that exercise can benefit women who have RA. Perhaps as important, researchers say exercise can be a preventive measure against the disease.
The study, which was published in the medical journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, concluded that women with a higher level of physical activity may have a reduced risk for eventually developing RA.
This was determined by first looking at their baseline level of physical activity in the two to eight years leading up to their RA diagnosis.
The participants of the study were part of the Nurse’s Health Study II. The study was conducted from 1989 through 2015. It included information on 116,430 registered nurses in the United States. These nurses were 25 to 42 years old at the time of the study.
The researchers analyzed the data of 113,366 of the women after excluding those who had baseline RA or any other connective tissue diseases.
The researchers discovered there were 506 cases of RA during the follow-up period. After adjusting for diet, smoking, and BMI at age 18 years, they found that an increase in the average total hours of physical activity per week was associated with a lower risk of developing RA.
The conclusion of the study showed the effects of physical activity on RA and the general importance of some daily physical activity for everyone. More active individuals had a 20 percent lower risk for seropositive RA and a 14 percent reduced risk for all forms of RA.
Researchers indicated that higher levels of physical activity and reduced excess weight were associated with reduced risk of RA. They also found that sitting for longer periods of time could be detrimental for RA symptoms.
Although this study focused on women, this isn’t the first time a positive correlation between exercise and RA has been discussed.
Earlier this year, a study was published on the benefits of yoga for arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation has also shared information from multiple studies showing that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) can be beneficial for people living with RA.
However, Kindle Fisher, a certified American College of Sports Medicine health and fitness specialist who’s worked rehabbing patients through physical therapy, massage therapy, and personal training, explained that not all workouts have to be intense if you have RA.
“Many individuals who suffer from RA worry that exercise will cause more joint damage and pain. But exercise can help lubricate the joints and strengthen the muscles surrounding the affected joints. In a flare, gentle light exercise, such as walking, swimming, or cycling, would be the most beneficial,” she told Healthline.
Fisher adds there are multiple benefits to exercise for people living with a chronic illness or chronic pain condition.
“Exercise can also boost your mood and mental health. This becomes important to anyone suffering from RA. It can become frustrating that some days are unbearable while others are tolerable. Increased blood flow promotes healing, so the more you move, the better you feel,” she said.
“My body feels pretty good — knock on wood — most of the time, so I may not be the same as a lot of people with RA,” Jess Z., a Pennsylvania resident, told Healthline. “But I do feel healthier and stronger in general when I routinely work out. When I do feel sluggish or have RA issues, I don’t have the push or desire to exercise. But I don’t think it makes my RA worse by working out. I’ve never really worked out and hurt the next day from it.
“When I’m actively exercising, I do it for 30 minutes to an hour. I do wonder, even though I feel fine from working out, if it is doing some minor damage to the joints/bones that I just don’t know, since I do still have RA,” she said.