Woman kneeling in her garden admiring the flowers she grew

There is a Time for Planting…

Traffic was horrific: a drive I should have made in four hours dragged on for seven. It was already dark by the time I pulled into my parking spot, mentally and physically drained and forcing my cramped and aching joints to move through sheer force of will. And then, as I fumbled for my keys, my neighbor, Louise, called out: “Whatever you do, don’t forget to go out front first thing in the morning and look at your garden. The flowers are GORGEOUS! We can’t stop looking at them!”
Hydrangea Plant

Louise was right. The garden I had spent several weeks planting had exploded into a riot of pink, orange, and yellow. Enormous balls of hydrangea took center stage, with hibiscus, bougainvillea, lantana, and portulaca playing supporting roles. I couldn’t stop looking at it either. But it almost didn’t happen.

Is gardening with RA possible?

Each year, as winter eases into spring, I watch for signs of green peeping through the earth: crocus and hyacinth first, then lilac leaves and new branches on the roses. And as spring becomes steadily warmer, I long to get my hands deep in the dirt and fill the garden with as many brightly colored blooms as I can. (As my neighbors will attest, I am partial to pink.)

"You shouldn’t be doing that!"

And every year, the response from kind, well-meaning people is the same: “You shouldn’t be doing that!” Sometimes, the concern takes a slightly different form. “Gardening is too much on you!” a friend might say. Or a family member will suggest, “You don’t need to do that much. Just put in a couple hanging baskets and be done.”

More on this topic

And yet, despite their loving intent (and grateful appreciation), they are also, in a word, dead wrong. (OK, that’s two words, but I hope you will permit me a little poetic license.) Why? Because they come from misinformation about RA as much as they come from love. So let’s clear up a few things.

Engaging in activities with RA pain

For most people who haven’t had medical training (or spent a lifetime managing a chronic illness), notions of medical self-care are pretty basic: Take acetaminophen for pain. Rest when you don’t feel well. If you injure a joint or muscle, take it easy for a while so you don’t make it worse. It’s all pretty sage advice in most cases, but not so much for someone with RA.

RA pain is different from general pain

Here’s why: Most home treatment envisions a future when the pain, tiredness, or injury will heal. With RA, while we all have good and bad days, there isn’t a better day in the future when we can do the things we want and need to do. So that means getting out there and doing those things now—even if we are tired, spiking a fever, or in pain. In other words, as I often remind myself: "I’m going to be in pain if I do the things I want to do or if I don’t. So why not do them?"

Why engaging in activities can be good

Science bears out my admittedly folksy approach, finding that our conditions will not get any worse by engaging in strenuous, low-impact activity (such as gardening.) A Dutch researcher found that “high-intensity exercise did not speed up the rate of joint damage. In fact, for the minority of patients who did experience rapid progression of damage, the culprit was more aggressive disease activity.”1

Moreover, embracing the things we want and need to do, even when they tire us out or temporarily increase pain, actually helps us to feel better in the long run, a benefit that our friends miss when they suggest we take it easy. The same study showed, for example, that most patients participating in strenuous activity actually “improved in daily functioning and mood.”1

Just do it...

That’s right. The very activities that wear us out physically help us emotionally. And as anyone with RA knows, our bodies tend to feel strongest when our minds feel the strongest. (See https://rheumatoidarthritis.net/living/finding-right-exercise/ for more on this topic.)

And that’s why I garden. Yes, I get tired and sweaty and sore. But the adrenaline and dopamine rush feeds my soul and helps me heal. Besides, who can resist a cluster of candy-striped morning bells to start each day? Certainly not I. Nor my neighbor, Louise.

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