Lift weights with sore joints? Yeah, right. You might think weight lifting would make arthritis worse. But think again. The benefits of strength training for arthritis are just being recognized. Weight lifting can help people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) function better and reduce soreness, stiffness and pain.

A 2009 study from Great Britain shows that a strength-training program called progressive resistance training (PRT) may improve physical function in people with mildly disabling, well-controlled RA. PRT involves periodically increasing the amount of weight used during an exercise so benefits continue as muscle strength improves.

Data from participants in the high-intensity – not high-impact – program dispelled the long-held notion that joints affected by RA needed more rest and protection than movement. None of the participants experienced a flare, and all improved endurance, gained lean body mass and lost abdominal, back and chest fat. Improve­ments also were seen in people with cachexia (see "What Is Cachexia?" below) – so much so that a larger trial is nearing completion to determine the effectiveness of PRT as a treatment for cachexia along with medications that control RA. 

In the 12-week study, participants three times a week performed three sets of eight of each of the following exercises: biceps curl, triceps pushdown, chest press, seated row, leg press, leg extension, leg curl and standing calf raise.

“The novelty of the study was not in the kind of exercises used – because over the course of a long-term training program, the exercises performed must be changed regularly, anyway – but rather in seeing the frequency and intensity at which people with RA could work,” says Samuele Marcora, PhD, exercise physiologist at the University of Wales in Bangor, United Kingdom.

To initially increase muscle strength, Marcora recommends using weight machines and then progressing to dumbbells. After several months working under the supervision of a qualified instructor to increase strength, Marcora says resistance bands could then be used at home for “maintenance” training.

What is Cachexia?

Cachexia is a condition of muscle wasting that occurs in more than half of people with RA. In many people with RA and cachexia, muscle mass decreases while fat mass increases. That can cause fatigue, disability, infection and premature death.

Theories to explain the breakdown of muscle tissue include inflammatory cytokines blocking the growth of muscle cells and people with RA getting too little exercise because of pain.