Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder that typically affects the joints in the hands, hips, knees, and feet. Unlike the “wear and tear” damage of osteoarthritis, RA affects the lining of joints, causing so much swelling that it can eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity — which can lead to loss of joint function.
Because RA is an autoimmune disease, it can sometimes affect other areas of the body, including the blood vessels, eyes, lungs, and skin. Additional symptoms of RA include fever and fatigue, leaving the person suffering from RA to experience one of the most common complications of any chronic illness: depression.
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but one of the best ways for people with rheumatoid arthritis to combat the symptoms of the disease and lead fuller lives is to exercise regularly. (However, because damage to joints doesn’t always correlate with the severity of RA symptoms or flares but can, in fact, occur very early on in the disease, it is important that you talk with your orthopedic physician about your exercise program.)
Each of the six benefits of regular physical activity can assist with the symptom management of RA.
Benefits of Exercise
The most commonly known benefit of exercise is weight management. While weight loss may be rather typical with RA, it isn’t necessarily healthy for you. And being overweight can place additional strain on already sore joints.
While being in better shape and feeling and looking fit helps to lift your confidence and self-esteem, there’s more to exercise and its positive impact on your mood than that. Exercise is proven to improve the state of mind and reduce physical pain through the release of endorphins.
Frequent activity requiring physical effort improves energy and combats fatigue. Regular exercise can improve muscle and cardiovascular strength, which boosts endurance. Being active also boosts the “good” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) while it lowers unhealthy triglycerides, which is also good for decreasing your risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Exercise also helps you sleep better at night. For people who have trouble sleeping due to pain, this is a benefit that cannot be overstated. Regular physical activity improves physical intimacy. This isn’t just about the “looking and feeling better” factor putting you more “in the mood.” Studies prove that regular exercise can lead to enhanced sexual arousal for women and fewer erectile dysfunction issues for men. Being able to enjoy your relationship more fully combats depression and adds to the richness of life.
Motivation to exercise can be an issue for anyone and that’s no different for people living with rheumatoid arthritis. For some people with RA, the pain itself is the very motivation to get moving; they know once they get going the pain will diminish. But for many others, knowing the benefits doesn’t overcome the pain of starting physical activity. It can help to add a social element to physical activity. Join a swim or exercise class, or simply meet a friend for a walk.