Following your doctor’s recommended treatment regimen is critical to reduce your arthritis symptoms and prevent your disease progression. But many rheumatologists increasingly acknowledge that lifestyle choices — eating whole, healthy foods, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, and reducing stress, to name a few — are important too.
But when your daily reality is often one of fatigue, ebbing-and-flowing pain, brain fog, and emotional exhaustion, starting and maintaining these healthy habits can be easier said than done. (And that’s on a good day.)
Our advice: Start small. These science-backed habits are particularly healthy if you have inflammatory arthritis, and many are simple enough to start and keep going when you’re not feeling your best.
1. Take a warm morning shower
Standing under a stream of hot water — or soaking in a warm bath — can help relieve stiff joints and ease any pain you may feel when you first get out of bed. Heating pads work too; just limit them to 20 minutes at a time.
2. Prioritize your To-Do list
Even if you wake up feeling well and ready to tackle the day, fatigue and muscle weakness can rear its head when you have inflammatory arthritis like RA. When you feel energized, focus on the things you really have or want to do. Split your tasks into manageable chunks and take breaks when you need it. And learn to say no to overpacking your schedule so you don’t burn yourself out.
3. Add a colorful veggie to every dish
Sweet potatoes, beets, broccoli, and spinach, as well brightly hued fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and oranges provide vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that may help fight inflammation.
And if that veggie serves as a side to salmon, even better. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are healthy fats that have anti-inflammatory properties, says registered dietitian Cat Taylor, LD, CSSD, with Nutrition on Demand.
A small study of rheumatoid arthritis patients who followed a Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes eating plant-based foods, healthy fats (like olive and canola oil), and fish — for three months found it reduced inflammation and improved joint function. Here’s more info on eating an anti-inflammatory diet.
4. Skip the soda
A typical 20-ounce bottle contains 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar and upwards of 240 calories; a 64-ounce fountain version can have up to 700 calories. To put it bluntly, that’s awful for you, for multiple reasons. Number one, sugar promotes inflammation in your body. And all those empty calories do nothing to satisfy hunger. Plus, research shows regularly consuming sugar-sweetened drinks is linked to greater weight gain and obesity, which can make symptoms of RA worse. Here are more tips for losing weight when you have arthritis.
5. Do something active
Rake leaves, take your dog for a walk, or play a round of golf — anything that gets you moving at a moderate level of intensity does your body good. Research shows regular exercise, including aerobic and strengthen moves, can actually help reduce inflammatory arthritis pain and improve day-to-day function. Plus, you’ll have more energy during the day and sleep better at night. Not moving can make joint pain and stiffness worse. Talk to your doctor about the safest way to fit physical activity and exercise into your arthritis treatment plan.
6. Braise more, grill less
Researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York found that grilling, broiling, roasting, and searing foods at high temps produces inflammatory compounds called AGEs. Some AGEs aren’t bad, but if levels get too high in the body, it can increase inflammation. Other healthy ways to prep your protein: Steam or poach fish, simmer chicken in a sauce, and braise meats. Marinating meats in something acidic, like lemon juice or vinegar, can help cut down the number of AGEs that form when you grill them.
7. Keep a positive outlook
Granted this may be easier said than done on some days, but it’s worth the effort: Thinking ‘my pain will never get better and there’s nothing I can do about it’ may actually intensify pain and extends its duration, explains Robert Kerns, PhD, a professor of psychiatry, neurology, and psychology at Yale University.
That pattern of thinking is called pain catastrophizing, and often associated with it is a fear of making the pain worse. For people with inflammatory arthritis, the most important thing to do is stay active, explains Dr. Kerns. If you catastrophize your pain, you’ll avoid doing things for fear of exacerbating the pain, like exercising. “That kind of thinking and subsequent behavior can contribute to the progression of the disease,” he says.
8. Use your electric jar opener
And get yourself some easier-to-grip gardening tools, long shoe horns, and doorknob adapters. There are lots of assistive devices designed for the sole purpose of easing stress on your joints so you can do your everyday tasks a little easier. Using these tools can help your mental state as well: Research published in the Journal of Rheumatology found having assistive devices was associated with improved psychological well-being in people with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. Here’s more advice on how to make cooking easier and how to simplify getting dressed.
9. Try gentle yoga
Yoga is an excellent body awareness exercise, which can help improve balance, posture, and coordination, as well as help strengthen muscles. Balance in particular, is often reduced when arthritis affects the lower extremities, like your hips and knees, says Audrey Lynn Millar, PhD, PT, chair and professor of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University. Tai chi is another great option, she adds; it helps reduce stress and promotes relaxation. Before starting, talk to your doctor or instructor to determine the safest moves for you.
10. Imagine yourself in a beautiful spot
It’s part of a relaxation technique called guided imagery, which can help reduce stress; research shows stress may make symptoms of RA worse. To try it: Sit quietly and take a few slow, deep breaths to calm your body. Close your eyes and form mental images of places you find relaxing, like a white-sand beach or snow-topped mountain. Use as many senses as possible — like smells and sounds — to make the image more vivid. You may be led through this process by a guide or teacher or ty it on your own.
A review of research found guided imagery helps reduce pain and anxiety in people with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases. Other stress-relief strategies include breathing exercises, laughing with loved ones, and meditation.
11. Go to bed at the same time every night
And wake up at the same time every morning (weekends, too). A consistent sleep schedule helps regulate your body’s clock so you fall asleep faster and stay asleep for the night. You need good rest with inflammatory arthritis. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests poor sleep quality is linked to more severe pain and fatigue, as well as higher levels of depression in people with RA.
Other tips to help you sleep well: Turn off the TV and put your phone away — bright screens before bed can mess with your body’s internal clock. Avoid stimulating activities, like exercise or consuming caffeine, too close to bedtime; instead wind down with a warm bath or good book before hitting the sack.
12. Seek support
Sometimes the pain and disability that come with RA is a lot to handle and can take a toll on your emotional well-being. Depression and anxiety are common, as are feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. Don’t go it alone: Tell family and friends how you’re feeling. They may not feel comfortable asking about your pain unless you bring it up first. Don’t worry about complaining; being candid is more important. Find someone you can talk to when you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed. And connect with others who have your same condition through an arthritis support group in your community or online.