Since May is recognized as Arthritis Awareness Month, it seems a great time to consider how to manage rheumatoid arthritis. If you are part of the 1.5 million Americans living with rheumatoid arthritis, you may be wondering whether it is safe to work out with weights to maintain your health. Because RA pain is impossible to ignore, it is easy to imagine that the best way to avoid pain is to avoid putting stress on your joints with weight-bearing exercise. If you have thought that, it is time to think again.
Why You Need Strength Training
Since RA is an auto-immune disorder in which your immune system attacks your joints and connective tissues, it is essential to do everything in your power to protect those vulnerable areas. The human body is designed in such a way that muscles, ligaments, and tendons all work together to support joints both at rest and in motion. When muscles become weakened due to injury or lack of use, stress on the joints increases.
Considering this, it is easy to see why people living with RA need strong muscles for joint support. Performing weight-bearing exercise strengthens muscles, thereby providing additional protection for joints. Other benefits of strength training include: weight reduction, decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, decreased risk of osteoporosis, improved blood sugar levels, improved range of motion, and pain reduction upon movement. Strength training can also slow the progression of RA by reducing general inflammation in the body.
How to Start a Strength Training Program
As is always the case, it is wise to speak with your doctor before beginning any exercise program. Your rheumatologist can help you find a program that is safe for your fitness level. Your doctor may also encourage you to work with a physical therapist or personal trainer.
A trained physical therapist is an excellent resource for people living with RA. A physical therapist can work with you to find activities that you enjoy and that help you achieve your fitness goals. A therapist or personal trainer can also show you the proper way to lift weights without injury and provide helpful hints about how much weight to use, and how often to do strength training exercises.
Working Out With or Without Equipment
Since RA affects the small joints of the hands and fingers, some with the disorder find it difficult to grasp dumbbells. If this is true in your case, you may find it easier to work with resistance bands or weight machines. Resistance bands provide constant resistance, while eliminating the jarring effect sometimes associated with using dumbbells that are too heavy. Similarly, machines allow for greater control over the weight, and may help reduce the chance of injury.
If you prefer working with dumbbells, it is important to use the appropriate weight for your level of fitness. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to do 12 reps of an exercise with minimal strain. If you can do 12 reps without getting slightly fatigued, your weights are too light. If, on the other hand, you can barely get 12 reps done without extreme effort, your weights are too heavy. The American College of Rheumatology and American Council on Exercise recommend completing one set of eight to twelve reps, working the muscle to the point of fatigue by the last few reps of each set.
There are, of course, some strength training exercises that use your own body weight instead of equipment. Exercises such as squats, lunges, and push ups against the wall can be done at home without the need for extra equipment.
Finding the Right Balance
Your workout should be challenging without being exhausting. If it has been a while since you did any strength training, you will likely need to start slowly, and build your strength up gradually for best results.
Some doctors and therapists recommend two to three strength training sessions each week, with a day of rest between each session to give your muscles time to recover. If you are just starting out on a strength training program, however, you may need to work your way up to the recommended frequency over the course of a few weeks.
Moderation is key. Performing each exercise in a slow and steady manner is more beneficial than quickly working through the reps. Maintain control of your range of motion to provide a better overall workout for your muscles and joints.
Avoid locking your elbows or knees as you exercise, as this exerts additional strain on your joints. Also, remember to stretch lightly and slowly before training, and breathe correctly while working with weights. In general, it is good to exhale while lifting, and inhale when lowering.
While it is normal to feel a little sore after a workout, if you experience pain while lifting, it is important to discontinue that activity for a bit. Try another type of motion or a lesser amount of weight until the pain is relieved.
“No pain, no gain” is not the best way to approach exercise for anyone, but those with RA must be especially vigilant to avoid injury. If you are experiencing an RA flare-up, discontinue your weight training until the inflammation is under control. Perform a gentler, non-weight bearing exercise instead, or simply give yourself a day off if possible.
Success with Strength Training
Once you begin a regular routine of strength training, you will likely find that your strength, balance, and endurance will all increase. While RA presents a unique set of challenges, it does not have to sideline you from the activities that will improve your health and the quality of your life. Slow, steady progress will keep you mobile, healthy, and happy for years to come.