by Alexis Rochester
Medically Reviewed by:
Danielle Hildreth, RN, CPT
by Alexis Rochester
Medically Reviewed by:
Danielle Hildreth, RN, CPT
With benefits such as relieving joint stiffness and improving weight management, reformer Pilates has the potential to alleviate many of your RA symptoms.
Are you living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and looking for an exercise that’s easy to modify but highly effective? Pilates might be the answer.
Pilates is a popular form of exercise known for its focus on core strength and body control.
But what if I told you that Pilates offers you far more than just toned abs and a sculpted physique? In fact, it has many unexpected benefits for anyone with RA.
For years, I wanted to try a Pilates class, but it looked intimidating. I wasn’t ever really sure what Pilates was. I would see very fit people moving in different ways on this machine bed-lookalike thing.
I just assumed Pilates was for extremely fit and athletic people and left it at that.
But after a Pilates studio opened up down the road from my house, I started to wonder whether I should venture into this unknown world. I tried a class and was really surprised how achievable it was with my RA. I soon found myself wanting to go back.
It has been one of the most rewarding exercises I’ve done while living with RA.
I tried and have stuck to a type of Pilates called reformer Pilates. It’s one of the most popular types, along with mat Pilates.
Reformer Pilates uses that machine bed-lookalike thing! But I now know it’s called a reformer.
A reformer looks similar to a padded table and contains springs, ropes, pulleys, and a sliding carriage to provide variable resistance for different types of movements.
In comparison to mat Pilates, which uses your body weight for exercises, the reformer can allow more intense and dynamic exercises due to the variable resistance.
While I’m sure all types of Pilates will be effective, there are several reasons I think reformer Pilates is particularly effective for RA.
Many exercises can be difficult when your joints are tight and stiff from RA.
Since reformer Pilates uses a machine, it can take most of the weight off your joints. You can complete the exercises in a non-weight-bearing manner, which can be a lot more comfortable for your joints.
Even when I’m dealing with an arthritis flare, I can do a reformer Pilates class. It doesn’t aggravate stiff and painful joints. Instead, it allows them to warm up at a slower and kinder pace.
After taking my first reformer Pilates class, I was surprised by how easily the moves could be modified.
I have a bad knee and elbow, so the instructor took a spring off the reformer to reduce the weight and resistance. You can also control your own range of motion using the straps.
This makes it very easy to modify to fit any need you have. No matter which arthritic joint is bothering you, you can change it up to work exactly as you need.
When I think of aerobic activities that get your heart rate up, I usually think of running, jumping, or other high impact exercises. But high impact training can be difficult and painful for anyone who has joint issues.
A small 2019 study concluded that Pilates has similar health effects to aerobics but without the impact on your joints. Pilates can have benefits for cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and functional performance.
Many Pilates classes I’ve taken have involved a jump board, which increases your heart rate throughout the class but has minimal impact on your knees and hips since you lie on the reformer during the class. You get to enjoy a cardio type of workout without too much stress on your joints.
For those of us with RA, keeping excess weight off can be very important to minimize the stress on our joints. Relying on diet alone can make it difficult to manage your weight. Strength training is key to building muscle and losing weight.
Since Pilates is such a low impact activity, people don’t tend to associate it with weight loss. But we know that the more muscle you build, the higher your basal metabolic rate tends to be, and a higher basal metabolic rate will lead to better weight management.
A 2021 research review concluded that Pilates can effectively reduce body weight, body mass index, and body fat percentage in people with overweight or obesity.
Before I did Pilates, I had to watch my diet very closely to manage my weight. Of course it took time, and consistency is key, but doing Pilates regularly has helped me tremendously with weight management. It has made a significant difference compared with using diet alone.
Pilates workouts involve slow and controlled movements along with resistance, which helps strengthen the muscles around your joints. This increased muscle strength helps increase joint flexibility.
Pilates exercises develop your dynamic strength, which should encourage better support and stability for your joints.
For these reasons, Pilates is often used for injury prevention, for rehabilitation, or in people who are more susceptible to injury. This is why it can be helpful for those of us living with RA.
One of the key benefits of Pilates is how much core strength it builds. Pilates movements are designed to target all parts of your core muscles, including your abs, hips, glutes, lower back, and inner thigh area.
Developing a strong core from Pilates takes pressure off areas such as your back, hips, and knees, helping to reduce arthritic damage and joint pain.
I never realized how weak my core was until I started practicing Pilates. The reformer engages my core muscles like no other exercise I’ve ever tried. I’ve been doing reformer Pilates for more than 5 years now, and my core is very strong. This has had a drastic impact on reducing my knee pain.
If you’re living with RA, incorporating reformer Pilates into your routine can be a game-changer. Pilates not only provides effective and gentle movements for stiff, painful joints but also strengthens the muscles around your joints and in your core.
It has become really important for my pain management and is such an accessible way to build strength and aerobic stamina.
If you’ve been curious about trying out a Pilates class but have been worried it might be too difficult, don’t let your RA hold you back. Pilates might just be the treatment you’ve been looking for.
Medically reviewed on October 31, 2023
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About the author
Alexis Rochester is an investigative chemist, blogger, and founder of Chemistry Cachet. She shares science-based skin care, cleaning, gardening, and health tips. She was diagnosed with RA at age 10, so she has a passion for pain management tips and research, along with sharing her journey through this disease. She lives in Texas with her daughter, husband, and bulldog. You can find her posting pictures and fun stories daily on Instagram. Also look for Chemistry Cachet on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and LinkedIn.