The aim of this systematic review was to determine the effectiveness of dynamic exercise therapy in improving joint mobility, muscle strength, aerobic capacity and daily functioning in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In addition, possible unwanted effects such as an increase in pain, disease activity and radiological progression were studied. A computer-aided search of the MEDLINE, Embase and SCISEARCH databases was performed to identify controlled trials on the effect of exercise therapy. Randomized trials were selected on the effect of dynamic exercise therapy in RA patients with an exercise programme fulfilling the following criteria: (a) intensity level such that heart rates exceeded 60% of maximal heart rate during at least 20 min; (b) exercise frequency > or = 2 a week; and (c) duration of intervention > or = 6 weeks. Two blinded reviewers independently selected eligible studies, rated the methodological quality and extracted data. Six out of 30 identified controlled trials met the inclusion criteria. Four of the six included studies fulfilled > or = 7/10 methodological criteria. Because of heterogeneity in outcome measures, data could not be pooled. The results suggest that dynamic exercise therapy is effective in increasing aerobic capacity and muscle strength. No detrimental effects on disease activity and pain were observed. The effects of dynamic exercise therapy on functional ability and radiological progression are unclear. It is concluded that dynamic exercise therapy has a positive effect on physical capacity. Research on the long-term effect of dynamic exercise therapy on radiological progression and functional ability is needed.