16 Gentle Exercises for People with Arthritis

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, gentle exercise can help your joints and muscles and benefit your heart, bones, and mood.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), low-impact exercise can help prevent stiff joints, build muscle, improve endurance, and benefit your heart, bones, and mood.

Of course, make sure to rest when your joints are inflamed. Listen to your body when deciding how much to exercise. "If it feels good to just walk in the water, then by all means go ahead, but you do not push through RA pain," said Danielle Anderson, a personal and adaptive trainer at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Illinois. "It's your body's way of telling you to stop." Work with your healthcare provider to find the right exercise for you and discuss when you should rest instead.

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Chair Stand

Who it's good for: People who want to build leg muscles

Tips: Start by sitting in a normal-height chair. Stand up and then sit down again in a controlled motion, using your arms to assist you if needed. Try doing 10 to 15 reps.

If you want a harder version, try a lower-height chair. If the normal height chair is too difficult, use a higher-height chair.

"As your legs get strong, you can control that motion more with your legs and less with your arms," said Lesley Hlad, a doctor of physical therapy at Duke Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation at Croasdaile.

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Who it's good for: Almost everyone, even people with tender, swollen joints

Tips: Yoga packs two great benefits for people with RA. Using deep relaxation techniques, like yoga nidra, promotes a healthy immune system and helps reduce joint inflammation. Plus, gentle stretching can help you maintain mobility and movement.

"Avoid power yoga, hot yoga, and flow (also known as Vinyasa yoga), which can increase internal heat and put excessive pressure on the joints," said certified yoga specialist Robin Rothenberg of Essential Yoga Therapy in Fall City, Washington.

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Who it's good for: Almost everyone, unless walking is too painful

Tips: Walking is a great bone-strengthening and aerobic activity. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends going at a moderate-to-hard intensity level—60% to 85% of your maximum heart rate—most days of the week. You'll build endurance as you walk longer, but it's okay to start with 10 minutes at a time, Hlad said. Work up to a 30-minute session if you have been inactive for a long time.

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Who it's good for: People with RA who want stronger muscles

Tips: Pilates is good for stabilizing your joints and strengthening the muscles that support your joints, explained Tresa Sauer, a personal trainer at the YWCA of Minneapolis. Sauer recommended trying the "shoulder bridge."

To complete the shoulder bridge, lay on your back, bend your knees, and place your arms along each side of your body. Exhale through pursed lips as you contract the abdominals and lift your pelvis. (Do not arch your backover or over-flex your knees.) Inhale through the nose and hold the position. Exhale to lower your pelvis back to the ground and repeat the exercise.

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Water Workouts

Who it's good for: People who have significant joint pain

Tips: Working out in a lap pool (usually four feet deep) can be a good option for people with significant pain because the buoyancy of the water relieves pressure on your joints.

When you exercise in the pool, try walking from one side of the pool to the other at a brisk pace. If you work out in a health center with an underwater treadmill, your trainer can adjust the speed of the exercise.

Additionally, consider exercising using a water jogging belt. It suspends you above the pool floor so you can move without putting any pressure on your hips, knees, or ankles, said Ann Rosenstein, a fitness professional based in Lakeville, Minnesota, and author of Water Exercises for Rheumatoid Arthritis.

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Who it's good for: Anyone with RA, as long as you do not overexert yourself

Tips: You can stretch sitting in a chair if that helps. Additionally, you can use a Stretch-Out Strap, a nylon strap with built-in loops for your hands and feet.

Try this: Place the ball of your foot through a loop, grasp each end of the strap with your hands, and straighten your leg. Lift your leg, gently pulling on the straps. "You're not reaching your toes, you're taking the strap and pulling up, so you're still getting a hamstring stretch," said Stefanie Fleming, an exercise physiologist at SwedishAmerican in Rockford, Illinois.

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Tai Chi

Who it's good for: People looking for a low-impact exercise

Tips: "Sun-style" (pronounced SOON-style)" Tai Chi involves slow, smooth movements that strengthen the body, reduce pain and improve mobility. In general, don't practice Tai Chi longer than the amount of time you can walk comfortably, advised Paul Lam, MBBS, a family physician and director of the Tai Chi for Health Institute in Australia. About 20 to 40 minutes per day is a good average for most people with RA.

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Weight Lifting

Who it's good for: Anyone, as long as you know your limits

Tips: Start by doing bicep curls with light hand weights, no more than two to five pounds, and build your endurance over time by adding weight and sets. Stronger muscles help you perform daily activities. If the heaviest thing you pick up is a gallon of milk, "you want to be lifting about eight-pound weights as your goal," Anderson said.

You can also do this exercise in the water—hold foam dumbbells in each hand, pull down, and let the weights slowly float up to work your arms, shoulders, chest, and back.

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Who it's good for: Anyone with feet or ankle problems

Tips: Whether you're riding outdoors or using an exercise bike, cycling avoids the pounding of high-impact aerobic activities but still packs great cardiovascular benefits. It also strengthens the quads. Try cycling for 10 minutes at a time. Build up to 30 to 40 minutes two to three times a week. You can try cycling on an upright or recumbent bike, whichever is more comfortable for you.

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Hand Stretch

Who it's good for: People with pain in their fingers and hands

Tips: Spread your fingers as wide as they can go, then make a fist. Repeat that stretching and squeezing motion. If you're in the water, open and close your hands underwater, or try squeezing a foam ball. Let it absorb the water before squeezing it out again.

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Who it's good for: People with RA who want to complete high-intensity exercise without hurting their joints

Tips: What makes Zumba, the Latin-inspired dance fitness class, different from high-impact aerobics classes? It burns calories without jarring your joints, explained exercise physiologist Caryn Locke, Senior Specialist in Commercial Learning and Development at Novo Nordisk in Sartell, Minnesota. "A lot it is just the fluidity of the movements," said Locke, who was diagnosed with RA in April 2010.

If you are just starting out, ease into Zumba. You will be using all your muscles, so beginners are at risk of over-using them. Taking twice-weekly classes will help you learn the choreography.

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Qi Gong

Who it's good for: Anyone desiring better balance, improved posture, a stronger core

Tips: When standing tall or sitting up straight in a chair, imagine a spring is lifting you from above, suggested exercise physiologist Tess Franklin, a Health Coach, Educator, and Health Screener at Interactive Health, Inc, in Michigan.

Close your eyes and take deep, relaxed breaths in through your nose and out from your mouth. Place your hands on your stomach and focus on moving your diaphragm in and out with each breath. Concentrate on strengthening the core muscles of your abdomen to maintain your balance and posture.

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Elliptical Training

Who it's good for: People who have good balance and exercise endurance

Tips: Do not try riding an elliptical machine if you are an exercise novice. This exercise is ideal for people in good cardiovascular condition who want a higher-intensity, no-impact challenge. Start at a constant ramp height and constant resistance, and make adjustments as you get stronger. Alternatively, choose a pre-set cross-training program. Adding arm movements will increase the cardiovascular benefit.

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Who it's good for: People who enjoy recreational exercise

Tips: Gardening burns calories and boosts pleasure-enhancing endorphins, easing depression that can be associated with RA, Anderson said. But you need to pace yourself. If you've got RA in your wrists, digging for hours at a time may cause a flare-up.

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Suspension Training

Who it's good for: People with RA who are interested in a more challenging core workout who don't have serious wrist or ankle issues

Tips: With suspension training, you leverage your own body weight from straps hanging from an anchor point. Place your feet in the stirrups and hold your body up with your hands or resting flat on your forearms. Holding a plank position works muscles in the abdomen, back, and shoulders. Work up to a 30-second hold with a 20-second rest between reps.

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3-Way Hip Exercises

Who it's good for: People with weak hip muscles

Tips: Try this out.

1. Face the kitchen sink and hold on. Alternate bringing each knee up like you're marching in place. This will work muscles in the front of your hips.

2. Keep your toes facing forward. Raise a leg out to the side and back to work the outer thighs and glutes. Alternate legs.

3. Face forward. Extend a leg out behind you until it's a few inches off the ground. Hold and lower it slowly, then switch legs. This works your butt and lower back.

You should do these exercises around the kitchen sink because it is something sturdy to hold onto in case you lose your balance, Hlad said.

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