People with arthritis face many challenges when it comes to doing strength training. This can include trouble remembering exercise technique, knowing how to adapt exercise routines during a flare, distinguishing between arthritis-related joint pain and delayed onset muscle soreness, and fear that exercise might trigger arthritis symptoms. In fact, around 86% of people with rheumatoid arthritis do not participate in strength training on a regular basis due to such barriers.
Our researchers are developing a toolkit to help health and exercise professionals better prescribe strength training to people with arthritis. We are also creating a guide for people living with arthritis to help them safely work strength training into their exercise routines.
Please review the frequently asked questions, videos and other resources below to learn about this research and more.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is strength training?
Strength training is essentially exercises that help build and strengthen muscles. For the purpose of improving muscular fitness, this includes push, pull, squat, and hinge exercises. A push would be something where we’re targeting our chest muscles and backs of our arms – for example, a chest press. A pull would be something where we’re targeting more back muscles – for example, our biceps in something like a row. Squats are a really important movement for getting in and out of a chair. So they are effective in strengthening the quadriceps and butt muscles. And then our hinge, which largely targets muscles in the backs of our legs like our hamstrings, can be something like a Romanian deadlift which kind of looks like picking something on and off the ground.
Is strength training safe?
Strength training, even high intensity strength training, if it is prescribed appropriately, is safe for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
What are the benefits of strength training?
Strength training improves both strength and function, which is really important for maintaining independence and doing everyday activities. But strength training has many other benefits. For example, it can improve mental health and decrease a person’s risk for chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
What are the benefits of strength training specifically for people living with rheumatoid arthritis?
Specifically for people with rheumatoid arthritis, strength training has many benefits. It can help decrease pain, fatigue, as well as swelling. People with rheumatoid arthritis are also at an increased risk for accelerated loss of muscle strength and size. Strength training can help lower this risk. These benefits apply to other types of arthritis too – we see similar improvements in things like strength and function, as well as decreased risk for chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, etc.
How can someone get into strength training?
There are limited strength training resources available for people with arthritis and that’s what we’re trying to address through our research. If someone wants to start strength training, there are some resources online. You don’t have to go to a gym to get started. You can even start by doing exercise classes or doing exercises at home with things like your own body weight or simple equipment like resistance bands.
What research are you doing to help people strength train?
We’re looking to find ways to support people with rheumatoid arthritis to participate in strength training. This includes the development of resources and training for people living with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as the health and exercise professionals who work with them to prescribe and promote strength training.
This research is called I START, which stands for Improving Strength Training and Tailoring Among People with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Our researchers are developing what’s called the I START Toolkit. It’s a complimentary tool for both practitioners, as well as patients. The purpose of this tool is to have a guided conversation where we can co-develop an approach to strength training.
The research team includes people with lived experience – people with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as clinicians. What we’ve been doing with this research is gaining an understanding of the things that make strength training challenging for someone with rheumatoid arthritis. We’ve summarized existing research to gain an understanding of how we tailor our approaches for someone with rheumatoid arthritis and what the guidelines and recommendations are for strength training. And what we are currently seeing, not just among people with rheumatoid arthritis, but more generally around how we support strength training as something that people do long term.
When will the I START Toolkit be available?
The toolkit will be available sometime before May 2023.
What makes Arthritis Research Canada's strength training research and the I START Toolkit unique?
To our knowledge, there aren’t currently any tools specifically for prescribing strength training for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Our toolkit will be the first of its kind. The unique piece here is we’re not just talking about what we prescribe, but how we prescribe and seeing strength training as something that isn’t just the exercises that we do, but a lifelong behaviour that we support.
How do the benefits of strength training and aerobic exercise differ?
The benefits of strength training and aerobic exercise are actually pretty similar. To clarify, aerobic exercise includes activities like walking, running and swimming and can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. But we’re also seeing that those similar health benefits result from strength training. In some cases, strength training even provides additional benefits – especially when we look at things like function and decreased risk for frailty.
Why do fewer people participate in strength training than aerobic exercise?
Understanding how to do cardio exercise is sometimes a little bit easier. You can ask someone to go for a walk, wheel or run. But with strength training, it becomes a little bit more complicated. Asking someone to go to the gym and do a set number of repetitions or specific exercises requires more support. There really is a need for more resources and training – not just for people with arthritis, but also health and exercise professionals. There’s a big knowledge gap in how to prescribe strength training for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
How common is it for people to do regular strength training?
Overall, strength training participation rates are low. In the general population, about a third of the population does strength training regularly (twice per week). Only about 14% of people with rheumatoid arthritis do regular strength training.
What prevents people with rheumatoid arthritis from doing regular strength training?
Through speaking with people living with rheumatoid arthritis, our researchers identified 50 different barriers to strength training. For example, disease-specific symptoms like pain and fatigue make it difficult to do strength training. Medication side effects – like brain fog – can also cause people to have trouble remembering a strength training program. These are a couple individual factors. But the barriers to strength training extend far beyond the individual. Many health and exercise professionals do not know how to provide support to help people strength train.
I START Tool – Exercise Videos
The I START (Improving Strength Training and Tailoring Among People with Rheumatoid Arthritis) tool is aimed to improve strength training participation and physical activity programs in people with rheumatoid arthritis. The below 10 videos show various movement patterns with demonstrations, progressions, and regressions with individuals living with rheumatoid arthritis. Want to learn more? Click here to read video descriptions of each exercise from the research team.
I START Lunge
I START Rotational Core
I START Vertical Pull
I START Horizontal Push
I START Core
I START Squat
I START Hip Hinge
I START Vertical Push
I START Horizontal Pull
I START Lateral Movement
Other Helpful Videos
Indoor Exercise Snacks with Dr. Jasmin Ma (Part 1)
This is a 10-minute exercise session with Arthritis Research Canada Clinician Investigator and Kinesiologist, Dr. Jasmin Ma. You will need a sturdy chair, weights or canned goods of equal weight to do the exercises. This video was produced by Arthritis Consumer Experts.
Indoor Exercise Snacks with Dr. Jasmin Ma (Part 2)
This is a 10-minute exercise session with Arthritis Research Canada Clinician Investigator and Kinesiologist, Dr. Jasmin Ma. You will need a sturdy chair, weights or canned goods of equal weight, resistance band, and a broomstick, rod or pole to do the exercises. This video was produced by Arthritis Consumer Experts.
Kinesiology, Behavioural Change, Inclusivity & Exercise Tips
Arthritis Research Canada Clinician Investigator and Kinesiologist, Dr. Jasmin Ma, explains the difference between physiotherapy and kinesiology and how behavioural change and inclusivity can impact a patient’s plan to start exercising. In addition, Dr. Ma demonstrates some exercises patients living with arthritis can do as part of their arthritis self care. This video was produced by Arthritis Consumer Experts.
I START: Improving Strength Training and Tailoring among people with Rheumatoid ARThritis
The Movement for All (M4A) Lab
A Scoping Review of Interventions to Improve Strength Training Participation
Tailored Interventions for Supporting Physical Activity Participation in People with Arthritis and Related Conditions: A Systematic Review
Tailoring Strength Training Prescriptions for People with Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Scoping Review
Current Practice and Barriers to Physiotherapists’ Use of Resistance Exercise for Older Adults in Acute Care
Tailored Physical Activity Behaviour Change Interventions: Challenges and Opportunities
Co-Developing Strength Training Behaviour Change Interventions for People with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Strength Training for People with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Barriers, Facilitators, and Tailoring Considerations
Wearable Physical Activity Measurement Devices Used in Arthritis
Fitness: When Life is a Pain in the Knees, Keep Moving
Arthritis Research Canada’s Senior Scientist, Dr. Linda Li, talks about the importance of exercise and strength training in this Vancouver Sun article.
30-Day Exercise Challenge for Arthritis
Arthritis Research Canada’s Senior Scientist, Dr. Linda Li, and Clinician Investigator, Dr. Jasmin Ma, have teamed up with the Arthritis Patient Advisory Board (APAB), to bring you a 30-day exercise challenge to help motivate you and keep your joints moving.
I Was Scared of Strength Training Because of My Rheumatoid Arthritis. Here’s How I Got Over It.
With proper guidance, strength training has become one of Eileen Davidson’s favorite tools for managing a painful battle with rheumatoid arthritis. Find out how it became a critical part of her exercise routine and overall treatment plan.
24-Hour Movement Guidelines
Canada’s first ever 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Adults offer clear direction on what a healthy 24 hours looks like for Canadian adults aged 18-64 years and 65 years or older.
GLA:D® is an 8-week education and exercise program for those with stiff and/or painful knees and/or hips, or those with knee and/or hip osteoarthritis. Research from GLA:D® in Denmark shows participants report less pain, reduced use of pain killers, fewer individuals on sick leave, and being more physically active.
Weight Training 101
Strength training with weights can be intimidating for people living with arthritis. The Arthritis Foundation has put together a list of weight training tips to get you started.