Early Morning Exercise for the Late Nighter

Exercise, as tolerated, and sufficient sleep and rest, are integral parts of rheumatoid arthritis management. Both in combination can elevate mood (depression affects people with RA at a rate far higher than the general population), and contribute to better outcomes long-term. Yet, for people in chronic pain, either constant or episodic, sleep and exercise can be two of the prickliest tasks to tackle. With the varied complications of life, family, work, and responsibilities added to the mix of inflammation and stiff or swollen joints, these two criteria for disease management can easily get shelved without intention.

Morning or night-time exercise?

Some people it seems, are temperamentally early morning go-getters, while others find the oil burning late at night. When I asked an avid cycling friend why he rides his bike at 5:30 a.m. year round, he replied "I'm already awake. What else am I going to do? I can't sleep past five." We are different beasts. If there were no alarm clocks or responsibilities in my life, I would quickly gravitate to falling asleep in the odd hours of the early morning, and waking up when the sun is overhead. My appetite for books increases as the clock nears midnight, and my mind comes alive in creative productivity only at the tail end of the day. Yet, like my friend, I have spent years riding my bike at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning as a groggy and sleepy-eyed cyclist. Exercise is often either early, or not all. I envy those who automatically awake before the sun is up, and hop out bed alert and lively. For me, doing anything at that time of day requires tremendous discipline.

Early morning exercise became one of the more difficult but desired activities in my daily routine following my RA diagnosis. Reaching to turn off the alarm clock after a night spent tossing and turning, foregoing my plans to wake up and exercise, has been far more common than I would prefer. Yet, the days that I get up and spend time on my bike, regardless of intensity, tend to be my best days.

How to exercise earlier in the day

I put together the following tips for those with RA who are aiming for early morning exercise:

Listen to your body

"No Pain No Gain" is a catchy slogan, but a dangerous and inaccurate one. Sleep and rest are important and require a careful balance. With RA, insomnia during disease flares or from constant pain is common. Pushing the body with exercise when one lacks sufficient rest will not yield gains, as there is insufficient recovery. If you set the goal of awaking early to exercise, do not be hard on yourself if you miss a few mornings due to RA and a lack of sleep. Without rest, exercise is unproductive. If your body says you need time off, then take it.

Plan off days and easy days

A common mistake of people new to sport or exercise regimens is to train too hard for too many days in a row. In cycling and gymnastics, the two sports I know best, athletes do not give 100% every day. In fact, all-out training sessions, pushing oneself to the limit, are the exception, not the rule. Consistency over time is far more important. A typical week of many professional athletes includes at least one day completely away from exercise, and at least one more day of "active recovery" which is doing a very light form of exercise to keep the blood flowing and the muscles limber. It is common to have multiple days of rest or active recovery a week depending on the particular demands of a competition schedule and to plan larger chunks of time off during the year (rest weeks or off season). This is for professionals who are hardened and adapted to constant physical demands. The lesson is that no matter how strong or athletic you are, time off and easy days are required.

With the above in mind, it is wise to plan your week ahead of time with days of active recovery, moderate intensity, and high-intensity exercise (or as tolerated depending on RA considerations). Scaffold the week so that active recovery days or rest days follow harder days. If you are naturally inclined to need a lot of sleep and tend to be a late night person, plan days when you will not be waking too early. Avoid impulsive exercise, and map out a structure that will work for you.

Be a consistent riser

Qualifying the need for days of not waking up too early, it is important to remain consistent. This I find, however, is one of the hardest with RA. There is nothing like a few nights of fitful and restless sleep due to RA-pain to derail my plans. Yet, Consistent bed and wake times are key to good sleep hygiene. When the disease throws me off track with a flare and its accompanying sleeplessness, I quickly try to get back on schedule as soon as it passes or comes under control.

Be prepared

Having food, clothing, and whatever else is required by your activity of choice set out the night before will help with motivation. "I'll just get my stuff ready in the morning" can impede getting out the door, whereas "I'll just get out of bed, grab my stuff, and get after it" facilitates a smooth and frustration free morning.

Be social

A great motivator is to plan exercise days with friends. The social pressure alone can help you stick to it. Additionally, exercising with friends can subjectively make the time go faster than dragging along alone in the early hours.

Track progress

If you have goals, make sure they are quantifiable. Whether it be a certain amount of hours spent exercising or stretching, calories burned, weight lost, and so on, track your performance and progress. This allows for perspective on gains achieved that can make one proud of the sacrifices made. It is easy to forget where you started, looking only to the next goal and seeing it yet unrealized. Tracking over time allows one to see progress and can bolster motivation.

Find something to enjoy

I find exercise a crucial piece of managing the disease and my mental health. Yet, as mentioned I am not inclined to the early morning, but nevertheless must get up to fit exercise into the day. Once I get rolling, with my heart rate elevated and my mind focused on the task, I enjoy the feeling of exertion and the satisfaction that follows solid work. Additionally, I have come to love the quiet mornings before my kids are awake and chaos ensues. Reading an article or a few pages of a book while eating my breakfast in quiet solitude is something I have come to savor and look forward to. For those like me who struggle to get up, finding something to appreciate can offset the difficulty while bringing motivation the night before.

RA Considerations

Everything I have said comes with the caveat of "depending on RA." At times I have been violently ill from medication, or in devastating pain from persistent inflammation. Exercising under those conditions is either impossible or will make things far worse. Additionally, structural damage from the disease can limit the range of available activities. Talking with a doctor about exercise and what is the best situation for your individual needs is the best path before deciding on any changes to your daily routine.

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