Use Caution While Exercising with RA
Last updated: January 2021
I recently got back to my swimming regimen after 8 months of not being able to swim in our indoor pool due to its closure. I was thrilled to get back to my exercise routine and “jumped in” with both feet.
I was so excited to be back in the pool that I did not give much thought to the fact I had not done the pool routine in nearly a year. Instead, I started right up with my normal exercises, many of which are pretty aerobically aggressive.
Too much, too soon
Fast forward several days and combine that with some much too heavy housework and I am now having some really intense lower right-side muscle pain that is making walking and getting up incredibly difficult. Two weeks in, and I am now headed to an orthopedist to see what I can do to get some relief.
I tell you this because it is a cautionary tale and one I need to be reminded of now and again. What is it about human nature that erases our memories when it comes to overdoing it? At the age of 66, you would think this would be a lesson well-learned. But, sadly, I have far too many examples of this over the years!
I needed to get back into my exercise routine in a graduated fashion
What we all need to remember is that exercising, even without the complications of a chronic disease like RA, should be done in a graduated fashion. We need to build up to a level that gives us what we want from the exercise without injuring ourselves. Wow, if only it were that easy! Time and time again we overdo it, resulting in an injury that makes our lives even more complicated than it already is.
Discovering exercises that work with our RA
On top of that, RA actually prohibits certain types of exercise for many of us. For instance, I would love to do yoga and I know many folks with RA who do practice it. But, for me, holding a position - even in a modified gentler form - spells pain and a flare.
After several attempts, I have shelved that and instead, practice Tai Chi, which is a gentle, meditative, continuous movement exercise that works perfectly for me. We all have to discover, sometimes painfully, what we can and cannot do since RA. I used to be an avid tennis player but that stopped when I realized that my shoulders could no longer handle the repetitive motion and my knees did not like the stop, go, and pivoting necessary to play.
Caution with aggressive joint movement
This brings me to swimming. The perfect exercise for anyone with joint issues. Because the water makes you buoyant, it is joint-neutral, allowing you to move in a much livelier way without pain, while still getting a great workout. I jog, strength train, do laps, and, until this injury, some pretty intense aerobic movements.
Reducing risk of injury when exercising with RA
What I have learned is that even in the water, we have to be careful how aggressively we move our joints. I gave little thought to the fact that I had not done these moves for months and so I plunged in and now am paying the price. So, even in the water, we have to use caution.
It is critical to consider the following:
1. How long since we have done the exercise we are about to embark on?
2. Start slowly and add on just as slowly.
3. If you have ANY pain, back off or even stop and do something different.
4. Pain does not equal gain when you have RA. It may well equal injury or flaring.
5. Carefully decide what exercises work for you, perhaps consulting your physician or medical care team first, especially if you are looking to take in a new exercise.
My final word of caution is about even doing something new around the house, like painting or gardening if you have not done them in some time. Start slow, if at all, deciding on the wisdom of the activity based on your RA status. If I had followed these precautions, I would be walking now instead of barely moving. Lesson learned.
Did you know rheumatologist Dr. Donica Baker is answering community questions?
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