A woman struggling to work out on a yoga mat. She has both an unstable arm and leg.

The Exercise See-Saw and Rheumatoid Arthritis

The ever-changing nature of rheumatoid arthritis makes any kind of routine nearly impossible, let alone exercise. Exercise routine and rheumatoid arthritis do not go together like peanut butter and jelly; maybe more like oil and water.

This is a fact that I’ve battled with almost my whole life. The minute I sign up for any class at the rec center, one of my joints decides to act up. And since Murphy’s Law seems to follow me everywhere, it’s usually the exact joint I’ll be most needing for that class.

RA complications make exercising a challenge

This is a separate problem from the problem of how to exercise at all. Going to the gym and trying to use the equipment with arms that are significantly different lengths is an exercise in frustration. Getting on an elliptical machine with poor balance can be an exercise in itself.

Trying to get to the point where I can work out my muscles without hurting my joints takes finesse equivalent to the best pastry chefs making a soufflé. Not much is easy traveling around in a body that moves differently than everyone else.

For me, exercise goals are useless

In a society that likes to see progress and loves setting goals, it’s hard to let go of the idea that my exercise needs to get me somewhere tangible. If I lift three pounds this week, I should be able to lift five next week, right? If I ride the stationary bike today for thirty minutes, by Friday I should be riding for forty. Maybe not, if by next week my knees have turned into grapefruits. The reality for me is, exercise goals are useless.

Does this mean I give up exercising?

So, do I throw my hands up in the air and enter the world of non-exercisers? A lot of people with arthritis do. The majority of people who live with RA don’t exercise regularly, and after writing the past few paragraphs I understand why - not only does it hurt, it’s hard. Not only is it hard, achieving tangible results can be harder.

Trying to keep up with my peers

Throughout the course of my life, I’ve tried to “keep up” with my healthier peers and my efforts have always been fruitless. I’ve introduced friends to certain sports more than once, only to watch them get better and more involved with said sport as I go through yet another flare-up, and have to sideline myself yet again.

Rock climbing, mountain biking, tai chi, scuba, are all activities that I’ve been sidelined from. I often wonder what adventures I would be taking if I had a body that cooperated instead of always getting in the way. How many peaks I could have climbed by now, and how many trails I could have conquered.

It's okay that exercising looks different for me

But the “what ifs” will always remain just that, and reality is what is left. My reality is one in which the current state of my body has to dictate how hard I can push it. It is one in which exercise will always take more effort than the majority of my peers, and the rewards of said efforts will be less apparent. This reality has been mine for 49 years.

My body has benefited from the exercises I can do

However, and at this point, I can see that my body has benefited from all of the disciplined exercise I’ve managed to participate in - it’s much healthier than it would have been if I’d sat out participating in exercise at all. At 51, besides the pesky problem of JRA, I’m pretty darn healthy. Whether I managed to stay in that Zumba class is beside the point. The point is that even if I couldn’t take the jumping, I could still walk around the block, and I did.

Despite the see-sawing nature of my physical abilities, I never chose to get off. And I never will.

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