8 Steps to Staying Active With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Sports may do your body good. So don’t let RA slow you down. Follow these simple steps to unlock your inner jock:

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1. Discuss goals with your doctor

Let your physician know what you hope to accomplish and how you plan to get there. Then the doctor can advise you on what’s realistic, given your joints’ condition and level of fitness.

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2. Choose your sports wisely

Running, volleyball, basketball, softball and soccer aren’t the best choices for people with rheumatoid arthritis, because they can diminish cartilage’s life span, says expert. “Cartilage in RA patients will degrade and can be further exacerbated by weight-bearing.”

If you have any joint damage, it’s very important your sport be low-impact. Jumping and running marathons aren’t good ideas. Tennis is tough as well because of the sport’s abrupt starts and stops.

So what are wise workout choices? Walking, biking, swimming and yoga.

The key thing for all athletes is to be in tune with your body. For example, if a triathlon is your dream, you can do the swimming and biking segments, and let a fellow teammate take on the running.

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3. Gear up

Upgrade your footwear. Buy sneakers in a specialty store or from a podiatrist, so you can be fitted for supportive shoes or special supportive inserts called orthotics.

You can also ask your doctor about short-term use of braces, sleeves and tape to support joints.

If you play a sport involving hands or feet, like golf, you can buy gel inserts that slip into gloves or shoes and warm the muscles, making it more comfortable to play.

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4. Start slowly

Don’t try to do too much, too soon.

Some of patients start by walking to the mailbox, and that’s a huge victory. The challenge is to get your strength, range of motion, and aerobic capacity back to a level that will make it fun to play sports with others.

For example, if your goal is to play golf, start by joining a walking team, and see how far you can go. Then you can understand the gap you face before you play your sport.

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5. Consult a physical therapist

Your doctor may also recommend you work with a physical therapist to evaluate your fitness level and plan a safe and slowly escalating exercise program. 

A physical therapist can teach a woman with rheumatoid arthritis how to incorporate strengthening and stretching exercises before, during and after the sport.

They often recommend isometrics for someone with RA because the exercises, in which a person pushes against a fixed object, are a form of strength-training that’s easy on joints.

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6. Take up yoga

Strengthening your core, the band of muscles around your middle, is key to proper conditioning.

Everything else in sports emanates from core flexibility and strengthening. And the best programs for that are yoga, Pilates and taichi.

Taking a yoga class twice a week is a great way to start conditioning for sports, although it’s safe enough to do every day.

You get more bang for your buck with yoga than going to a gym and lifting dumbbells with a personal trainer. It’s gentle on joints, and increases strength, balance and flexibility.

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7. Adapt to your RA

Women with rheumatoid arthritis can feel more sluggish than their teammates.

Fatigue is common with RA because it’s a systemic disease that can affect the cardiovascular system. And the body has to use its resources to control inflammation.

A regular exercise program that builds muscle and endurance can address fatigue.

But it shouldn’t be so strenuous that there’s little energy left for her sport.

Also, plan for adequate rest and sleep.

Ask your doctor how rheumatoid arthritis medications might affect your new activities.

For example, you might “need to use a sports sunscreen that won’t come off when you sweat,”. That’s because hydroxychloroquine and methotrexate, both drugs commonly used for RA treatments, can increase sun sensitivity.

Also, rheumatoid arthritis medications such as methotrexate and steroids can thin bones, which is why sports that can lead to falls – such as ice skating, Rollerblading or soccer – aren’t recommended.

If methotrexate makes you nauseous, avoid taking it the day before a game or rigorous practice, he advises.

If you’re taking steroids and playing on a competitive team, you may need a note from your doctor. Even though steroids for RA aren’t the same as the ones athletes take to bulk up muscles, you may need to explain why you take certain medications.

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8. Don’t push through the pain

Pain and joint stiffness are common for people with rheumatoid arthritis, but learn to recognize pain that’s abnormal. 

If you’re doing what you haven’t done for a while, it’s normal to be stiff. But if the stiffness lasts longer or is more intense than you expect, you overdid it.

Don’t play through pain or exhaustion, Stiskal says. “Recognize the need for rest.”

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