When RA Gets in the Way of Exercise

I’m someone who would have loved to be an athlete if juvenile rheumatoid arthritis hadn’t hit me at age two.

I’ve always thought I’d be on a field or in the mountains doing something physical as much as possible. Instead, I’ve spent my life trying to keep up, and doing most of my exercise solo because, truthfully, barely keeping up is humbling and not very fun. When I’m on my own I can limp without hearing, “Are you sure you’re up for this?” I can turn around without disappointing anyone but myself, and I can push myself if I want to, even if I know it will hurt.

A discouraging pattern with group classes

Over the years, I’ve tried group exercise classes. But rarely do I continue them on a regular basis because often my body will flare for periods of time that make whatever class I’m doing impossible. This has been a discouraging pattern over time.

And although I know the obvious choice would be to join when I can, often I’ve felt so discouraged about having to drop out, that the idea of coming back to a class and having to start over is just too much. Pilates, Zumba, kickboxing, Tai Chi, and yoga have all been victims of this vicious and disheartening cycle.

Giving Bikram yoga a try

About ten years ago, I heard about Bikram yoga, and how good it was for rheumatoid arthritis pain. There was a studio close to where I was living so I thought I’d give it a try. I was skeptical about my ability to get through a class, as my previous attempts at yoga were more frustrating than fun.

To my surprise, I was able to do a lot of the poses and adapt the ones that my body couldn’t do. On bad days, I could lie on the mat and soak up the heat, only doing a few of the poses. Best of all, my pain dropped a few levels consistently every session, even if I was not participating much. I thought I’d finally found the thing I could stick with.

Once again, I had to stop a group class

Then my life changed again. My neck became unstable and I had to undergo fusion surgery. Before the surgery, I was obviously very careful about what I did, and yoga was out of the question. After the surgery, I became dizzy a lot, lost 75 percent of the range of motion in my neck. Both of these things made me anxious about attempting yoga, especially hot yoga, as twice the dizziness had led to fainting. So, once again, I stopped a group activity that I had come to love.

Trying a zoom yoga class

It’s been three years, and I had put the idea of yoga so far back in my mind, long ago closing the door to what I had decided would only lead me to more disappointment, and sadness.

But then, a few weeks ago, a good friend who just finished training in stress management yoga asked if I wanted to join her Zoom class. I told her "yes" before I had a chance to talk myself out of it, even then thinking there was no way this was going to work for me.

Being proud of my efforts

Two sessions in and I’m hooked! I know that the likelihood of having to miss a class or three is high, but I’ve decided to turn a corner in my mind. Instead of looking at each time I have to quit or sit out a form of exercise as a failure to be sad about, I recognize that I’m not giving up, just finding new ways to move as my body changes.

I’m realizing that I’ve been really adaptable and persistent all these years, moving to find a new door every time one closes. I’ve decided to be proud of my efforts instead of focusing on the times things haven’t worked out. It really does feel like a weight lifting off my mind, which tells me this new way of approaching things is a good one!

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