Exercise and RA: Move Your Body Every Day

When I was a kid living with arthritis I was told to swim. The problem is, I was horrible at it. I remember being in swimming class with my kickboard trying to kick across the pool and going backwards instead. I still have no idea how I achieved that trick, but I do remember cheating my way across the pool by surreptitiously using my hands to move forward. To this day, if I find myself swimming laps nine times out of ten I’ll have a kindly fellow lap swimmer take it upon himself to give me tips about my horrible form. One of the perks of JRA for me is that it’s a great scapegoat for things like this- I’m convinced that my wacky joints make me a wacky swimmer, so I’m not as hard on myself about it as I otherwise would be.

We’ve all been told that the best exercises for rheumatoid arthritis are low impact- hence the strong recommendation to swim I got when I was young. The problem I always have run into is one of personal preference- if it isn’t fun, it is harder to stay motivated. And when you are awful at something it becomes less fun. So my exercise motto has always been this: move my body every day in some way. I’ve found that by keeping my options open, trying anything that sounds interesting, and working with the body I wake up with that day is the best way to keep myself going. Some days this means I can take a two-hour bike ride, and other days I’m lucky to have enough energy to walk Jasper, my four-legged buddy, around the block.

Over the 40+ years I’ve lived with this disease I’ve had times when the JRA has been quiet, but the majority of my life it has been active, at times severely so. I’ve learned to adjust my exercise habits along with the changes the JRA brings to my body. I’ve tried tai chi, yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, rock climbing, hiking, biking on the road and off road, weight lifting, swimming, water aerobics, scuba diving, and gentle walking and have realized that I can do more than I think I can even with puny muscles and less than average strength. Because there is so much loss with rheumatoid arthritis I have found that whenever I can do something physically demanding it boosts my spirits tremendously and gives me a sense of achievement that I can carry with me during the inevitable hard days.

Some of my forays into exercise have been a bit too ambitious, like when I joined a kickboxing gym. I lasted about a month, only because I’m really stubborn. I remember partnering up and being knocked backwards about three feet the first time the girl I partnered with threw her first punch at the punch shield I was supposed to be holding steady. Looking back though, I have to smile at myself- this was a really fun experience for me even though it was less than successful.

I’ve found that medical advice is just that- advice- especially when it comes to lifestyle. I know that low impact exercise is better and that overdoing it isn’t, but sometimes going against advice and doing what I want to, even if it proves that the advice was right in the first place, makes me feel really good. Trial and error has taught me more about my body and its limits more than any article I’ve read. That being said, I want to pass on a few tidbits I’ve learned the hard way, so maybe the road for you won’t have to be so bumpy.

Just say Yes- to moving your body every day. Our bodies are made to move, and when you live in pain it is actually more important, not less, to move every day in some way. Exercise will stimulate endorphins, our natural pain killers, keep muscles strong which also helps pain, and helps keep body weight down which will make moving easier.

Learn to Love Variety- Because every day is a whole new ballgame with an RA body, it is necessary to be adaptable when it comes to exercise. It used to frustrate me that I couldn’t plan ahead and commit to an exercise class, but now I know that as long as I have options in place I won’t feel left out. Right now, I alternate between walking, biking, Pilates, and when I’m doing well, weight lifting. Most days I find that walking is the best plan for me and I always stretch and move throughout the day to avoid stiffness.

Wiggle your way through the day- Doing ankle exercises while sitting, rotating my shoulders, periodically stretching my neck, alternating sitting and standing whenever I can- all of these things make me less stiff when I do have to get up and move and they also contribute to making me more aware of how my body is feeling. When you live with chronic pain, distraction can be your best friend but if you get too good at it, it can mean that you aren’t listening to your body’s signals. If instead, you tune in and move a bit, you will get a lot of good information that will help you to help your body.

Throw out Goals, But track progress- This is a hard one for me, but I’ve learned that whenever I’ve set concrete exercise goals I end up being disappointed. Instead, I track what I do and how I feel before, during, and after in order to make sure I’m not increasing my pain. There is a three-hour pain rule when it comes to RA- if you are hurting a lot more 3 hours after you exercised you know you did too much. I think this especially important when you are doing higher impact activities like weight lifting.

Have Fun- This is the most important exercise tip I can give you. Pain takes the fun out of everything, so do whatever you can to make moving your body fun. When I walk I often call friends and loved ones to take my mind off the pain or I’ll listen to a podcast or music. I have different exercise partners depending on how I am feeling. I have one friend in her 60’s that likes to take what we call “granny walks” with me on days that I’m doing okay, but not great. On really good days I have my husband Todd who is a patient and understanding biking partner. And on really bad days there is Jasper, who doesn’t care if I walk at a snails pace as long as he can come along.

And remember this quote from Mahatma Gandhi:
“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.”

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