I've had a couple requests in the last week (mostly from my mother) to design an exercise program for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). I thought it would be a good idea for a blog post. This post will cover the benefits of resistance exercise for RA.
Exercise programs for RA have historically been more focused on aerobic type exercise because of the increased risk of cardiovascular events. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that and it has been shown that aerobic exercise improves quality of life, levels of pain/disability, and cardiovascular fitness in persons with RA. However, resistance exercise should not be ignored. In fact, studies show that resistance exercises can have an anti-inflammatory effect, reduce cardiovascular risk, and improve function.
Strength training using weights has been shown to be safe in a study by Strasser et al. (2011). Participants in the study performed bench press, chest cross (flys), bicep curls, triceps extensions, and sit ups. All participants had a disease duration of greater than 2 years and were also receiving drug therapy. In the study the participants lifting a weight that was 70% of the 1 rep max 10-15 times. Once they could perform more than 15 repetitions then the weight was increased. For the first two weeks they did one set of each exercise and from the third week onward they did two sets. By the end of the study disease activity and pain had decreased, while general health and function improved.
Basically what all this shows is that a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise is best for persons with RA - and for that matter people in general.
The problem is, as in my mother's case, it can be very difficult to hold onto weights when your haven't the grip strength in your hands, or range of motion in your fingers to properly grasp. So, what do you do? The answer is you do what your body lets you do. For people with advance RA exercises like the the ones mentioned above may not be appropriate, it's very important to speak to your doctor/rheumatologist to make sure exercises certain exercises are appropriate.