RA and the Big, Fat Problem

Anyone who has rheumatoid arthritis will tell you it’s no picnic. But having RA and being overweight or obese, too, is a really big, fat problem.

The body’s immune system protects us from foreign invaders like the harmful bacteria that multiply in an infection, or like the cold and flu viruses that make us sick. Without the immune system, we’d be lucky to live through babyhood.

But RA is like a powerful general who turns his armies against his own country, stubbornly insisting it’s the enemy. The immune system still goes after bacteria and viruses, but it also attacks its own tissues, determined to neutralize or, better yet, destroy them. RA is a systemic disease—it can attack tissues anywhere in the body—but it’s best known for attacking the joints and their connective tissues, the cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. And so far, there’s no reliable way to stop—or cure—this dangerous disease.

This full-on attack on the joints causes a lot of damage. The joints and other connective tissues are under a great deal of stress as they work to move the weight of the body in space. Even under the best of conditions, RA can cause the joints to break down and deform, cartilage to crumble and dissolve, and tendons and ligaments to weaken and tear.

Now add a fat dollop of extra weight to the mix. You’ve probably heard that America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that more than a third of all American adults (35.7 percent) are obese, which means that they have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. But this problem is far more serious than not being able to fit into those cute skinny jeans. Obesity can cause or aggravate a myriad of health problems, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Both can be killers.

Overweight and obese people who have rheumatoid arthritis face an even bigger risk. RA can attack the lining of the heart, causing inflammation that results or worsens in heart disease. It can attack the lining of the lungs, causing pleurisy, and it can cause nodules to form inside the lungs, a condition called rheumatoid lung. It can also inflame the vascular system—the veins and arteries—making it harder for them to deliver blood to tissues throughout the body.

Even without rheumatoid arthritis, being overweight or obese means a lot of extra stress on the weight-bearing joints, like the hips, the knees, and all the joints in the ankles and feet. With RA, the extra weight only makes having inflamed, painful joints worse and speeds their eventual demise.

Exercise, along with a healthy diet, helps to keep bodyweight under control. It keeps the joints moving through their full range of motion, too, and it strengthens the muscles that support the joints. RA can make it much more difficult to exercise, though, and the heavier we become, the harder it gets. Obesity alone can cause high blood pressure, certain cancers, high cholesterol, stroke, and liver and gallbladder diseases.

If you’re one of those who has this big, fat problem—made even worse by RA—then it’s vital to solve it. Regular exercise can help with weight loss. And people who exercise are usually healthier overall. They feel better. They sleep better. Their mental health—their self-image and confidence—are better, too.

Losing those excess pounds will take a serious weight off your overburdened hips, knees, and feet. Start with a simple, healthy diet, one that’s high in vegetables and lean proteins, uses healthy, plant-based fats, and that’s very low in carbohydrates and sugars. Drink eight measuring cups of water each day. A well-hydrated body functions better from top to bottom.

Add in gentle exercise. Brisk walking for 30 minutes a day, four days a week is great for rheumatoid arthritis because it doesn’t stress the joints much. Be sure to start out slow and build up to it, though, and be sure not to exercise a flared joint.

Are you one of the people who has RA—and a big, fat problem? Unfortunately, I am, too, but I’m working hard to resolve it.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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