Let's Get Physical

A couple days ago I did something that I haven't done in quite a long time. Downhill skiing? Ballroom dancing? Mountain climbing? No, none of that. I took a walk. A walk? This might seem like not that big of a deal, but to me it was. I've basically been a lethargic and sickly couch potato for months on end, getting absolutely zero exercise other than lifting the TV remote control.

My walk wasn't just some dinky little thing either. I went on a three-mile walk outside in the cold and snow (thank you, Minnesota)! It might have been a bit foolish to go from no activity for several months to suddenly walking a brisk 5k, but I did it anyway. And it felt great! I want to do it again, and soon. Getting back into the habit of regular exercise is a resolution that I want to jump on as soon as possible. My RA and the rest of me desperately need it right now and I know it would make me feel so much better.

What's up with those happy, exercise endorphins anyway? I had forgotten about them and just how good exercise can feel--even in the midst of some level of pain. By the end of my walk, my heart rate had noticeably increased, my cheeks were red and warm, and I had even worked up a bit of a sweat. I could just about feel my poor, stagnant blood beginning to pump and surge through my veins. I was sore and tired and sweaty. But I felt alive again.

Importance of RA-friendly exercises

Why is it so hard to exercise when you have RA? Well, the simple and obvious answer is this: PAIN! Who wants to exercise and move their body more when it already hurts? Unless you have some weird masochistic tendencies, I would say "nobody." However, the strange thing about RA is that exercise can actually help with the pain and fatigue of the disease. How can this be?

According to the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), "exercise and arthritis can and should coexist. People with arthritis who exercise regularly have less pain, more energy, improved sleep and better day-to-day function."

The ACR also states that "physically active individuals are healthier, happier and live longer than those who are inactive and unfit. This is especially true for people with arthritis." Finding the safe and right kind of exercise for your body and RA is therefore extra important, especially since certain kinds of exercise can harm and trigger flare-ups.

Challenges of exercising with RA

Personally, there aren't many forms of exercise that I can do because of my RA, which is beyond frustrating--especially since I used to be very physically active as a teenager before I got arthritis. The main problem that hinders my ability to exercise is my "bad" ankle. My right foot and ankle are constantly swollen and painful to some degree (and suffered through two surgeries), no matter the state of my RA. Walking, standing, driving, or doing anything weight-bearing on that foot/ankle does not lend well to exercise.

Running as a sport or form of exercise is absolutely out of the question for me. So is hiking, climbing, or even just taking leisurely walks. But what about that 5k walk I just went on? Yes, I know. I did it and it felt good, however the walk also did somewhat flare up my bad foot and ankle. I suspect the cold weather might have also had some kind of numbing effect that didn't make walking as painful as it usually is.

Finding RA-friendly exercises

So what kind of exercise can I do? I think I've written about this before, but one activity I really enjoy doing and that doesn't bother my joints too much, is riding my bike. Sadly, I'm not able to ride my bike year-round due to living in the lovely, frigid state of Minnesota. There are some adventurous wacky people who are hardcore bikers and ride even during the winter months here. How they can do this without being scared to death of ending up as frozen roadkill is beyond me. There's no way you'd get me on a bike, pedaling and sliding across snow and ice in the middle of traffic. So yeah, biking isn't the perfect answer to my exercise problem.

Swimming is, of course, the best form of exercise for me and probably everyone else who has RA. It's a great cardiovascular workout yet it doesn't put a lot of pressure on your joints. It also just feels really wonderful and relaxing, bobbing up and down and gliding through the water.

My main excuse for not swimming or doing other types of water/pool exercises is a pathetic one, I know. I'm basically just lazy and I don't want to drive to the pool on a regular basis. I also don't particularly like walking around in public in a swimsuit or having to deal with after-swimming showering, sopping wet towels and things, and getting dressed in a locker room with saggy senior citizen ladies who don't mind parading around in the buff. But other than those things, yes, swimming is perfect!

But seriously, I admit that swimming is the best and safest way for me to exercise, even with the embarrassing swimsuit hazards, and I fully intend to go back to the pool as soon as I can. But in the meantime, I will try to attempt a few more walks around my favorite path, making sure to listen to my body the entire way, and to not push myself too much or too far. I also hope that spring will one day come again and I can hop back on my good old bicycle.

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