Topic Overview

Exercise can reduce pain and improve function in people
who have
rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Also, exercise may
help prevent the buildup of scar tissue, which can lead to weakness and
stiffness. Exercise for arthritis takes three forms:
stretching, strengthening, and conditioning.

Stretching involves moving joint and muscle groups through and
slightly beyond their normal range of motion and holding them in position for
at least 15 to 30 seconds. See pictures of various
stretches. If stretching is uncomfortable, try to at least move every joint through its full range of motion every day.

Strengthening involves moving muscles against some resistance.
Strengthening exercise helps people who have rheumatoid arthritis stay more active and able to do their daily activities, and it even seems to help their outlook.footnote 1 There are two types
of strengthening exercises:

  • Isometric strengthening is
    simply tightening a muscle or holding it against the resistance of gravity or
    an immovable object without moving the joint. For example:

    • Tighten the front thigh muscle of the
    • Push the wrist up against the undersurface of a table.
  • Isotonic strengthening means
    moving a joint through its range of motion against the resistance of a weight
    or gravity. For example:

    • Put a
      3 lb (1.4 kg) weight on your
      ankle and then bend and straighten your knee.
    • Lift free

See pictures of
basic muscle-strengthening exercises and
muscle-strengthening with free weights.

Conditioning exercise improves aerobic fitness.
Conditioning exercise is safe for people whose rheumatoid arthritis is under control. It may help reduce pain and help you stay more active.footnote 2 Conditioning, or aerobic, exercises include
walking, biking, swimming, or
water exercise. A target heart rate can guide you to how hard you should
exercise so you can get the most aerobic benefit from your workout.

Use this
Interactive Tool: What Is Your Target Heart Rate?

Target heart rate is only a guide. Each individual is
different, so pay attention to how you feel while you exercise.

Note that even moderate activity, such as walking, can improve your
health and may prevent disability from rheumatoid arthritis.

Pay special attention to your hands if you have rheumatoid arthritis. If your hands are stiff and sore, it’s hard to do your daily activities. See pictures of some basic hand exercises to help you stay strong and flexible.

sure to follow your doctor’s advice about your exercise program.
For most people, physical activity does not pose any problem or hazard. For
some people, some forms of physical activity might be unsafe or should be
started only after talking with a doctor. See a list of
exercise cautions to consider before starting any
exercise or fitness program.

For more information on exercise, see
the topic

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Actionsets are designed to help people take an active role in managing a health condition.

Interactive tools are designed to help people determine health risks, ideal weight, target heart rate, and more.



  1. O’Dell JR (2013). Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. In GS Firestein et al., eds., Kelley’s Textbook of Rheumatology, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1137-1160. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  2. Baillet A, et al. (2010). Efficacy of cardiorespiratory aerobic exercise in rheumatoid arthritis: Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Arthritis Care and Research, 62(7): 984-992.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD – Internal Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Nancy Ann Shadick, MD, MPH – Internal Medicine, Rheumatology

Current as ofOctober 10, 2017