Rheumatoid arthritis and exercise – or ‘why I go to the gym so much’


If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that rheumatoid arthritis is a very painful condition.  The pain can wax and wane, but for those with moderate to severe disease, the pain is pretty much always there.  Just walking causes pain.  So it seems counterproductive to exercise.

But exercise is highly recommended for those suffering from any of the many forms of inflammatory arthritis.  Exercise improves cardio vascular health, muscle strength, bone strength, and has a range of other benefits.  But it does hurt.  Some days it hurts incredibly.

One of the hallmarks of inflammatory arthritis as opposed to osteoarthritis, or wear and tear arthritis, is that exercise generally improves symptoms.

Disclaimer!  I am NOT saying everyone with rheumatoid arthritis should exercise.  There are people whos disease is so severe exercise is impossible.  There are people for whom exercise does NOT make it better, it makes it worse.  And then there are the full body mega flare days, where standing up is tough, walking is agony, and making it to the bathroom is exercise enough.

But exercise is worth trying, on a good day. (Assuming you have those).

Before I got sick, I was a big exerciser.  For a time I was a gym junkie.  I also had my ‘must run 5kms every day’ phase.  And I did karate for a few years.  I did karate post rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, and for a time it helped.  As I went higher through the grades I found I couldn’t perform to that level, and eventually made the tough decision to quit.  And now I’ve come full circle and I’m a gym junkie again.

I’m a very different gym junkie to the one I used to be, however.  I only do low impact stuff – yoga based classes, weight training classes, spin classes (awesome cardio and zero impact.  Still hard on the knees though).  Some days I am only capable doing 20 minutes on the recumbent bike.  In short, I do what I can do, when I can do it.

Sometimes there are consequences.  Sometimes my knees will swell up, or my ankles.  Or the pain in my hips and lower back will be worse.  But I can’t be sure that pain wouldn’t be there anyway, even if I hadn’t been to the gym that day.

I do it because exercise is something I have always enjoyed.  And while I can’t participate the way I used to, I still get pleasure and a sense of achievement from my workouts.

I do it because, after the first five to ten minutes of screaming joint pain, I usually do start to loosen up.  The pain does start to decrease.  And most importantly I start to feel a bit better about myself, and what I can still do with this body.  I focus on what I still have, rather than what I have lost.

Of course there are days when I start to exercise and the pain increases.  Those are the days where I walk out of the gym ten minutes after I walked in, and head back home.  I hate those days, but what did I lose by trying?  Yes, I look a little silly doing a ten minute bike ride and heading home.  But frankly, who’s watching?  No one notices, let alone remembers.   I’m just not that important .

So no excuses for me.

And the other reason?  And this is a big one.  I like the people at the gym.  The instructors are incredible, fit, positive people.  Their enthusiasm is infectious for those of us in the class.  And there are all kinds of people in the classes I attend – there for all kinds of reasons.  Many of them are fighting battles of their own.  Some are battling injury, chronic conditions, depression…some are just battling their body shape or fitness level.  Some are just there for fun.

Whatever their purpose, they are there doing something about it.  They are not sitting on their butts complaining.  They are not succumbing to pity parties.  They see something that needs fixing, and they are working on it.  Doing the best they can.

Those are the kind of people I want to be around.  Some people’s battles are harder than mine. Some people’s battles are easier.  But we are all fighting.


  1. Glad I found your blog I will pass your website link to my sister who suffers from this too. Well done on an excellent resource site. I was going through the @012 entrants in the SWC blogging contest and thought I would check yours out. Glad I did.


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