Diet and Exercise for Rheumatoid Arthritis

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you'd probably like to know the secret to controlling your symptoms. Fortunately, choosing healthy foods and getting certain types of physical activity can make a big difference in how you feel on a daily basis. Here's what you should know about eating right and exercising with RA.

Eating Healthy

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease. Understanding which nutrients increase or reduce inflammation will help you navigate healthy eating for RA.

Many of these suggestions overlap with the dietary advice recommended for heart health. Because people with rheumatoid arthritis are also at higher risk for cardiovascular issues, it makes sense to focus your efforts on eating well.

Types of Foods to Eat

Researchers have identified a few key foods that improve RA, including mushrooms, dairy, and a daily glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice.

Foods rich in polyphenols, namely fruits, vegetables, and spices (like turmeric and ginger) have known anti-inflammatory effects that are beneficial for RA symptoms. Consider adding a cup of green or rooibos tea to boost your antioxidant intake and keep your joints feeling their best.

One of the most effective anti-inflammatory nutrients is omega-3 fatty acids. For many RA patients, omega-3s reduce flare-ups and the need for pain medication.

Foods for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Recommendations for omega-3 intake include eating fish twice per week or talking to your healthcare provider about taking a supplement. For vegetarians, chia seeds and ground flaxseeds can be a good source of omega-3.

In general, adjusting your eating pattern to align more closely with a "Mediterranean diet" can help keep RA flare-ups at bay. Include ingredients like olive oil and olives, lentils, sardines, brown rice, spinach, tomatoes, pomegranates, and grapes on your menu.

Avoiding Trigger Foods

Perhaps more crucial than what you eat for RA is what you avoid. In general, highly-processed foods tend to be pro-inflammatory. Processed foods are higher in sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats. While these ingredients lengthen the shelf-life of food products, they offer little to benefit your health.

Instead of buying processed meats like bacon, salami, hotdogs, or cold cuts, try preparing fresh chicken or beef. Substitute in vegetarian protein sources, such as tofu or lentils, to reduce your saturated fat and sodium intake while boosting polyphenols.

Cutting back on sugar-sweetened beverages, especially caffeinated soda drinks, can positively impact RA. Stay hydrated with flavored club sodas or water.

You might be surprised by the amount of added sugar in various foods like granola bars, breakfast cereals, flavored yogurt, soups, salad dressings, sauces, and snacks. Check food labels to compare products and avoid hidden sugars.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Healthcare Provider Discussion guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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Regular Exercise

Physical activity is a proactive way to lower inflammation throughout your body. But exercising with RA can be tricky. To reap the benefits of being active, you'll want to focus on moves that work your heart and other muscles without hurting your joints.

Types of Exercise

Instead of high-impact workouts (like running and jumping), individuals with RA should perform low-impact exercises to boost energy levels and alleviate joint pain. Using controlled resistance moves will strengthen the muscles around your joints to prevent strain and provide better support.

For cardio, walking is a convenient option for people of all exercise levels. Make sure you have shoes with adequate cushioning to avoid pressure on your knees.

Working out in the water, through swimming or water aerobics, lets you move your body without hurting your joints. Stationary cycling or biking outdoors is another excellent way to be active with RA.

Tips for Exercising Safely

Discuss exercise with a healthcare provider before beginning a new program, especially if you're on medication for diabetes or blood pressure. When you're having an RA flare-up, be sure to listen to your body and take a day off for recovery if needed.

To reduce stiffness and increase your range of motion, don't forget to stretch as part of your workout. Stretch after warming up, holding your position for 10 to 20 seconds without bouncing.

Be sure to stay hydrated by bringing a water bottle if you attend an exercise class or exercise outdoors. On hot, sunny days, remember your sunscreen or wait until the sun starts to set before heading out to be active.

If your job involves repetitive motions (especially ones that are hard on your joints), you may be worsening your symptoms. An occupational therapist can help you develop ways to modify your work and protect against RA.

Importance of Healthy Weight for RA

There's ample evidence that being obese or overweight increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Taking positive steps with your eating habits and exercise can help you achieve a healthier weight.

Reducing your body fat percentage supports RA management in multiple ways. Fat, or adipose tissue, produces hormones that contribute to your body's overall inflammation level. Larger individuals require higher dosages of RA medication for treatment to be effective.

Furthermore, every extra pound of body weight places additional stress on your knees, hips, and ankle joints. Shedding extra weight through healthy lifestyle changes can slow the progression of RA and improve your quality of life.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Freeman J. RA diet: What foods to eat if you have rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network.

  3. Zaccardelli A, Friedlander HM, Ford JA, Sparks JA. Potential of lifestyle changes for reducing the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis: Is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure?. Clin Ther. 2019;41(7):1323-1345. doi:10.1016/j.clinthera.2019.04.021

  4. Arthritis Foundation. Best exercises for rheumatoid arthritis.

  5. Arthritis Foundation. How fat affects rheumatoid arthritis.

By Anastasia Climan, RDN, CD-N
Anastasia, RDN, CD-N, is a writer and award-winning healthy lifestyle coach who specializes in transforming complex medical concepts into accessible health content.