Taking Control of Rheumatoid Arthritis Through Aqua Aerobics

Jennie Roe Health Guide
  • Like many of us at mid-life, I had amassed more than a few unwanted kilograms and had the makings of a good ‘spare tyre' around my waistline. It was the result of many years of slow neglect, helped along by a largely sedentary lifestyle, long hours in an office job, and a pretty unhealthy aversion to regular exercise. (I have always loathed that uncomfortable hot, sweaty and sticky feeling that accompanies intense exercise and gym work!) In recent years, however, I had taken to walking the dogs fairly regularly, but this tended to help me to maintain - rather than shed - my weight.


    But then rheumatoid arthritis made its unwelcome appearance in my life. It was just a few short months after ending treatment for breast cancer, and I had been looking forward to celebrating my new-found health and vitality (and my 50th birthday) a few months later on the holiday of a lifetime to Paris. 

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    The RA diagnosis was a long time coming ... after nearly six months of joint pain, swelling, poor mobility and ultimately difficulty managing the most basic daily activities.  Walking became more painful for my tender feet and ankles with each day and, with the reduced mobility, I walked less each day ... until I finally stopped.


    With two weeks to go to the start of our long-anticipated holiday, I had to face the fact that I was not well enough to travel ... there was just no way I could have withstood the 22 hours flying time from Australia when I was in so much pain.  But then (almost overnight) the breakthrough; we finally had a diagnosis ... and the wonder drug Prednisone!  Suddenly I could not only walk ... I could run!  I had energy to burn ... and so, with just one week to take-off, I could start to seriously think about packing.  (Paris, here I come!!)


    But with many months of moderate doses of Prednisone came the additional kilos and the ‘spare tyre'. And each time I tapered the dosage down, the flares and pain would resurface.  Again, walking fell by the wayside.  But by now I was more aware of the need to wrestle back some control over the RA.  I knew I had to somehow stay mobile and try to reduce the impact of excess weight, for the sake of my precious joints.


    I sought advice from my physiotherapist about an exercise regime that would help me to maintain joint mobility, was low impact, and could also help me to improve my fitness and weight loss.  She recommended aqua aerobics. I didn't know much about it, and I must confess to initially dismissing it as gentle exercise for the elderly. But I am thrilled to say that I couldn't have been more wrong!


    I was fortunate that the aqua instructor at the local pool made the classes fun, while also giving us a great all-over workout.  The added bonus was that she understood RA (her mother has the disease) and when the occasional exercise niggled (which sometimes happened in the early days), she was quick to suggest an alternative way to exercise that same body part without stressing the joint.


    So, what is aqua aerobics?  Think "group fitness" and "aerobics classes" ... but in water.  Classes are generally 45 to 60 minutes long, and the rhythmic music is there, as well as the range of movements and exercises. And it is all led by an instructor who can be relied upon to cajole, motivate and sometimes gently bully you along to get the most out of your workout.


    And so what's different about aqua?  Basically, exercising in water works with the body's natural buoyancy to increase resistance while also minimising impact on our RA-stressed joints. This equates to a higher intensity workout without the stress on the body and joints of land-based fitness regimes.  It provides an all-round workout that improves cardiovascular health, muscle tone and strength, general fitness and endurance, weight control and, most importantly, assists general joint mobility.  In short, it is great for people with arthritic conditions.

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    Various accessories are available to increase the intensity of the workout, should you wish.  I like to use resistance gloves, as well as foam dumbbells and ‘noodles'. The use of leg and arm weights are also options.  Depending upon the depth of the pool, you may have the choice of shallow water (where operating at chest height is ideal) or deep water (where you exercise with a buoyancy vest).  I've tried both, and I'm not sure that either is better.  They are just different.  Of course, there is virtually no impact on joints in the deep water.


    One of the highlights for me is that I can exercise without feeling uncomfortably sweaty!  That's not to say that I don't perspire, as I do (especially if the class is in a heated pool), so it is important to keep up the fluid intake while exercising.


    As in all exercise with RA, don't push yourself.  If something hurts or is uncomfortable, change to a different movement, and explain your situation to the instructor so that they can help you with a more appropriate exercise.  And work at your own pace.  Ultimately, what is important is that you are exercising ...mobilising your joints and strengthening the surrounding muscles and soft tissue.


    I have to admit now to being a convert to aqua aerobics.  I have stuck at my exercise regime, three to four times every week, since I first dipped my sore toes in the pool almost five months ago.  This is unheard of for me ... I was previously the exercise drop-out queen!  Maybe it is the endorphin rush and the "feel good all over" sensation I get after exercising in the pool now? 


    Or maybe it is the results I have seen over these short months?  Now that Methotrexate has kicked in, I finally stopped Prednisone just a few short weeks ago (after nine months of constant use). Despite the protracted use of Prednisone and its ‘heavy' side effects, I have lost 7.5kgs (16.5 lbs), as well as 9cm (3.5") off my chest and waist, and 8cm (3") off my abdomen and hips.  Importantly, I also feel so much better in terms of mobility, fitness, body image, and I am largely painfree ... a very different place from where I was at when I started my aqua regime nearly five months ago.


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    These results speak volumes for me.  I am now committed to maintaining my aqua routine for as long as I can.  My health - and my joints - are reliant on my keeping this commitment.


    Gotta go ... I'll be late for my aqua class!

Published On: March 23, 2011