Rheumatoid Arthritis | Nucleus Health
Rheumatoid Arthritis: 4 More Reasons to Try Strength Training
Studies show that strategies such as advance planning, concentrating, and lifting less may make resistance training more effective and enjoyable.
By Meryl Davids Landau
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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You know you should lift weights to make your muscles stronger and reduce your fatigue. But if you’re like most Americans, you just don’t do it. And if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you may be worried that strength training might be bad for your joints, or even make pain worse.
Strength Training: It's All Natural
Experts say that if you have RA, strength training is something you should run to, not back away from. “Exercise is a great anti-inflammatory,” says Gustavo Carbone, MD, a rheumatologist at the University of Miami Health System. People with RA constantly ask me about natural things they can take, he says, “ exercise, including strength training, is the best natural thing there is.”
In fact, a review of the benefits of exercise for people with RA in theJournal of Aging Researchconcluded that exercise training is so valuable for improving function without exacerbating disease activity that “all RA patients should be encouraged to include… resistance exercise training as part of routine care.”
Ask About Physical Therapy
Once your doctor says you can exercise, it’s best to get a referral to a physical therapist (PT), who can show you how work around your condition. While you don’t want to lift weights with joints that are flaring, Genie Lieberman, an occupational therapist and director of the Gloria Drummond Physical Rehabilitation Institute at the Boca Raton Regional Hospital in Boca Raton, Florida, says you can still strength train muscles in other body parts during that time.
Need more inspiration? Several recent studies point to ways to help make your exercises more effective and more enjoyable:
1. You Can Lift Less
Most people think you have to lift mega-sized dumbbells to get results from strength training. And it’s true that if you want to look like LeBron James, you will need very heavy weights.
Focus on What You Are Lifting, and You Can Use Lighter Weights
But a small but important study published in June 2019 inLife Sciences showed that when people lift light weights and focus their minds as if they are contracting their muscles for a heavier load, they significantly improve muscle strength. Interestingly, people lifting the same light weights while watching an entertaining video (and therefore not concentrating on their muscles) didn’t see the same gains. The authors concluded that such “high-effort” exercise done with light weights can be safe and effective for people with health conditions that preclude their lifting heavier weights.
2. You Don't Have to Go It Alone
People often avoid weight training because they think it's boring. But a review published in April 2019 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at some reasons people avoid strength training, and offered suggestions to combat them.
Hatch a Workout Plan and Add Friends
The researchers found, for example, that planning a workout in advance increases the odds that you'll do so. So does enlisting the encouragement of family and friends. (You might even ask them to go to the gym or to lift weights at home with you, which will benefit them, too.) The authors also suggest finding ways to make the exercises enjoyable, such as listening to upbeat music or working out with a PT or trainer you like.
3. You Can Make Workouts Work For You
Sometimes people gain strength while working out at a physical therapist’s office, but they can’t translate that into exercising at home. That’s why Hong Kong researchers explored the effects of adherence to an exercise program that was tailor-made for a small group of participants with knee arthritis. In a 2019 article inClinical Interventions in Aging, they described their method, which proved effective in boosting adherence and health outcomes in this pilot program.
Which Moves Are Most Do-Able For You?
They found that it’s better for the PT to teach you exercises that are done while sitting or standing rather than lying down. That way, you can do your resistance exercises at home while watching TV. They also found it helps to ensure that you understand all the steps involved in each exercise so you can do them later; study authors provided both in-class demonstrations and handed out posters and pamphlets with pictures and descriptions of each move.
4. Soreness Doesn't Have to Stop You
While doing strength training, it’s important to listen to your body, Lieberman cautions. After you exercise, if you feel pain that is severe or lasts more than an hour, talk to your PT or trainer about modifying specific exercises for the next time.
But don’t let soreness be a reason to stop, since all effective strength training makes you feel sore. “Any exercise done when a person is not conditioned is going to hurt for a while — not just people with RA, but everyone,” Dr. Carbone says.
Video: Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients with Heart Disease Likelier to Have Positive Rheumatoid Factor
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