RA & Exercise? You bet!
I like to play with alliteration and so it was a no brainer to come up with one that encompasses some of the key management components of Rheumatoid Arthritis. EEE – Exercise, Eating and Engaging. First up – exercise. It is common knowledge that exercise is a key element to healthy living. That is substantially magnified for those of us with RA. Why? Because our joints, compromised with RA, need to have everything else surrounding them strong and fit. That means we need to work on flexibility, strength and balance to ensure that we can keep our bodies moving even when our instinct is to stop moving.
The challenge is WHAT to do and HOW to do it? The WHAT is decided by your own ability to take on different types of exercise. Over the course of my 20 years with RA I have done brisk walking, jogging, strength training, tennis, zumba, swimming, tai chi, biking, treadmilling, etc. I often tell people that I like to think that RA has actually expanded my horizons when it comes to exercise because depending on how I am doing and where I am at from an RA standpoint, my exercise needs to be adjusted. Certainly I get frustrated when I have to stop doing something I love, tennis for instance. That said, I decided the challenge was to find a replacement and so I did. Over and over. Understand that adjusting your exercise choices is likely to be the course you will take. Rather than let that be a deterrent to exercising make it a personal goal to find a form of movement that works for you! The rewards are exponential!
I finally came to the conclusion that for me swimming was the perfect answer to the question WHAT? Being in the water essentially neutralizes the impact of joint stress and so you can do mostly anything you would do on land in the water. That is so crucial! I jog, strength train and do flexibility exercises in addition to the traditional lap swimming when I am in the water. Decision made. The only drawback is the time element. I have to get to the pool, do my routine (about an hour), shower and get to work or back home. Takes about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish. So I have to purposely set aside that time and make it a priority. Challenging but doable and totally worth it. Now I do not swim 7 days a week. In fact if I get in three days I am thrilled. So I still needed to find another exercise that would work for me. So I alternate between using my treadmill, stationary bike and Tai Chi. That gives me variety and just as importantly allows me to see where I am at joint-wise, often the determining factor for which of those I choose. Are there times when I do absolutely no exercise? Absolutely. When I am in the midst of a really nasty flare, switching medications, recovering from surgery, just plain not motivated, etc. Any of those can nudge me off track. The key is to “get back on the horse” at some point by reflecting on the value of exercise. Starting small and building up to a more varied workout may be the best path to take. When I first started swimming I simply did laps for about 20 minutes. Then I added jogging for 10 minutes. Then strength training with aquatic weights was added. Now I do a nearly one hour regimen. When I cannot get to the pool I try to do some treadmill or biking at home followed by some Tai Chi. As long as I move I know I am doing good things for my joints!
So WHY exercise? Not only is it crucial for all of the well documented and widely accepted physical reasons but equally as important are the psychological benefits of movement. I would say that, for me, they may even be more important. First of all there is the awesome feeling of accomplishment when you are able and willing to exercise despite RA. That is huge! Secondly, I think and function mentally with much more clarity when I exercise. I often tell my staff that I have literally composed my best grant narratives while swimming laps. Third, exercise improves my mood. A great hour of exercise makes me happy and gives me a sense of contentment. Fourth, I sleep sooo much better when I exercise. Thanks to the use of my body and the strength, movement and flexibility it affords I rest so much more completely and sleep more soundly. For those of us with chaotic chronic diseases like RA, being able to control just one element of our day to day functioning is tremendously beneficial. Exercise is a tangible example and one that anyone can do. Just find the one that suits you best! Start simple, start small and take it one day at a time!