A Smoother Cycle

As a very active kid, exercise wasn’t a chore; it was the means to a great time. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that running and playing started to feel painful. My sophomore year in high school I retired two years early from the varsity soccer team due to the pain in my knees. An orthopedic surgeon did not diagnose me with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, nor did he even mention that as a possibility, but he did say that the cartilage in my knees was wearing thin, accounting for the pain I was in. It would be another six years before I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, but it was from that point on that exercise took on a different light. It could still be exhilarating, liberating, rejuvenating, and fun, but it could also be painful, frustrating, and extremely challenging.

Doctors agree that exercise is an important component of RA self-care. However, due to the pain and even inflammation that strenuous exercise can cause, low impact activities such as walking, swimming, yoga, and cycling are commonly recommended for those of us with arthritis. Luckily, these are all workouts that I really enjoy . . . when I’m not in too much joint pain. However, cycling has been an activity that I don’t do often, as going up hills induces immediate discomfort in my knees (and I happen to live in a hilly area), and there’s the worry that I’ll be a couple miles into a ride when the pain will be too intense, and I’ll be stuck far away from home with excruciating pain in my knees. These aches and worries have kept me from cycling often at all, in spite of having many happy memories of wonderful times on a bike.

Recently, a solution came about in an unlikely way. My husband and I got my daughter a bicycle for her fifth birthday, but she’s been reluctant to ride on our driveway because it’s on a slope, and the street we live on has enough traffic that it’s not an ideal place to learn. My husband suggested that we drive up to a nearby playground with our kids, the bike, and a tricycle in the van, and let them ride on the paved track that circles the playground. This was a fantastic notion, but as soon as we arrived my kids ran immediately to the playground and didn’t even want to get on the bike or tricycle. As with so many things in parenting, it’s not what we say but what we do that kids pay attention to. So we decided that the next time we tried this plan, one of us would lead the way on a bike, showcasing to the kids how much fun it could be.

On our next opportunity to ride bikes with the kids, I happened to be feeling pretty well physically, but was mentally bogged down by a lot of stress. My husband suggested I ride the bike, as it would do both my joints and my psyche some good. So I rode ahead to the playground while he loaded up the kids and bikes to drive them over to meet me. There’s a hill close to our house, and I did indeed feel every inch of its incline in my knees. However, once I made it up the hill and started cruising, happy associations ran through me of decades ago when I was a kid, and riding a bike through the neighborhood provided a level of freedom and excitement unparalleled in the life of an eight year old. Once I made it to the playground, I realized that the track is absolutely perfect for my needs. It is completely flat and only about a quarter of a mile long, so if my joints start aching too much it’s easy to get back to the starting point. As I made circle after circle around the track I felt energy coursing through my body along with the blood and breath. I felt sheer joy in the ability to move so freely through the air. Having a disease that can at times make it hard to walk across the room, I don’t take movement for granted. With the wind on my face and my feet bearing down on the pedals, I could, for a moment, forget that I have RA and simply exist in the present moment, moving and being. When the van arrived a few minutes later, my husband and kids got out and started chanting, “Go Mama, go! Go Mama, go!” They were celebrating my movement with me, and I felt that for just that moment, everything was right in the world.

Having RA can be extremely challenging, and it often requires some creativity to figure out how to do an activity that others can do easily. Now that I’ve found this little track, I’ll be riding a bike a lot more often. As I circle and circle the track, my hope is that I’ll also be ascending an upward spiral, with my RA activity diminishing in response to the exercise, enabling me to complete a greater number of circuits before my joints protest. My hope is that finding an exercise routine that works for me will result in less pain and fatigue, leaving space for more joy; that as I achieve a smoother cycle on land I’ll also attain a smoother cycle in life.

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