Why Exercise Can Be So Draining for People With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Even a gentle session of leg lifts set off an exaggerated nervous system reaction in older women with rheumatoid arthritis.


By Gretchen Reynolds

Exercise can feel more difficult and draining than usual if you have rheumatoid arthritis, and it’s not just because of the stiff and painful joints caused by this autoimmune disorder. In a groundbreaking new experiment involving older women and exercise, researchers found that even a gentle session of leg lifts set off an exaggerated nervous system reaction in those with rheumatoid arthritis. Light exercise also negatively affected the inner workings of their muscles and blood vessels.

The findings build on earlier research about rheumatoid arthritis and the nervous system and raise pressing new questions about the best and safest ways for people with this disorder or similar autoimmune diseases to become and remain active.

Anyone who has rheumatoid arthritis or is close to someone who has it knows the havoc it creates in the body. Immune cells mistakenly attack healthy tissue, especially in joints, causing swelling, pain and deterioration, along with full-body inflammation and fatigue. Rheumatoid arthritis also often results in cardiovascular disease, which initially puzzled doctors, since the misguided immune cells do not directly target the heart or arteries.

But in recent years, researchers discovered that people with rheumatoid arthritis tend to have unusually twitchy sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is the portion of our internal wiring that stimulates the fight-or-flight response, biochemically alerting our brains, heart, muscles and other bodily systems to brace ourselves for impending danger. The opposing parasympathetic nervous system, the Matthew McConaughey of our internal biology, lulls us, sending signals that quiet the sympathetic upsets.

But in rheumatoid arthritis patients, researchers found, the sympathetic system seems stuck in overdrive, keeping people’s internal operations constantly on edge. A result is a high risk for elevated blood pressure and heart rate, even when people are resting quietly, which contributes over time to cardiovascular disease.

Few of those earlier studies, though, looked at exercise, which also raises blood pressure and heart rates and changes nervous system reactions. Some past studies — and considerable anecdotal evidence — had indicated that people with rheumatoid arthritis feel more fatigue during and after activity than other exercisers. Their heart rates and blood pressures also remain stubbornly elevated for longer after workouts. But what might be going on inside their nerves and muscles leading to these reactions has been mostly unclear.

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