Exercise for RA: Heart and Lungs Benefit

Rheumatoid arthritis patients on individualized exercise plans had better heart and lung health and improved symptoms

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Rheumatoid arthritis can cause pain and tenderness in joints, so patients frequently become sedentary. A new study may give people with the disease a new reason to move.

In the study, researchers assigned some rheumatoid arthritis patients to an individualized exercise plan and gave others exercise advice. Then they followed up to monitor heart health and the severity of symptoms.

The researchers found that the patients who exercised regularly had better heart and lung health, which might help reduce their risk of heart disease. Additionally, their symptoms and disease activity had improved.

The researchers concluded that exercise and strength training could be an important part of a treatment plan for people with rheumatoid arthritis.

"Talk to a rheumatologist about exercise plans for arthritis."

Antonios Stavropoulos-Kalinoglou, of the Department of Rheumatology in Russell's Hall Hospital, led this study to see how exercise affected heart and lung health, as well as overall health, in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease characterized by inflamed, painful joints. Symptoms can range from mild tenderness to severe, debilitating pain.

Past studies have shown that light exercise can help relieve symptoms and provide other benefits for people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, patients with RA often have difficulty moving and performing everyday tasks due to the pain, and most patients are sedentary.

Furthermore, RA is associated with a greater risk of heart disease. Previous studies have shown that better cardiovascular fitness, or well-functioning heart and lungs, may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

This study looked at how improved cardiovascular fitness affected the risk of developing heart disease in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

A total of 40 patients with RA were recruited to participate. They were randomly split up into two groups. One group received a six-month individualized exercise plan. The other group received verbal advice about exercise.

Before the trial started, the researchers assessed each participant's physical ability, severity of RA and any heart disease risk factors. They followed up after three and six months of intervention.

The participants in the exercise group were assigned to exercise programs in which they were advised to exercise at a given intensity for 30 to 40 minutes.

The exercise programs consisted of circuit activities. For example, a participant might walk, cycle and use a rowing machine each for a few minutes, then repeat several times.

After three months, the participants in the exercise group also started integrating resistance training into their workouts.

About two-thirds of the exercise sessions were supervised, and the others took place in the participants' homes. Heart rate and attendance were monitored during the workouts.

After six months, the researchers found that maximal aerobic capacity (ability to use oxygen during exercise) of the exercise group increased by about 17 percent. The maximal aerobic capacity of the control group decreased slightly.

The exercising participants' blood pressure and level of bad cholesterol also decreased throughout the study. They also experienced a significant reduction in rheumatoid arthritis severity and activity, while the control group did not.

The researchers suggested that some of the improvements in the participants' health may be attributed to the style of exercise intervention, not just exercising. For example, participants may have been more likely to stick to their exercise plan because they were supervised.

The researchers concluded that individualized resistance and aerobic exercise plans helped improve cardiovascular health as well as some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in patients. They also called for more research to be conducted on the long-term effects of exercise for rheumatoid arthritis patients.

"Strengthening the muscles and bones around joints that are affected by rheumatoid arthritis with strength training exercises, can add strength, stability, and pain relief to the joints. Aerobic exercise stimulates blood flow to joints throughout a range of motion diminishing pain," Rusty Gregory, a certified wellness coach, personal trainer and dailyRx Contributing Expert, told dailyRx News.

"Eliminating gluten and sugar from the diet will help reduce the inflammation that rheumatoid arthritis creates," said Gregory.

This study was published in the November issue of the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

The research was funded by a grant from the Dudley Group of Hospitals R&D and a Wolverhampton University equipment grant. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
October 7, 2013
Last Updated:
October 8, 2013