Returning to regular workouts after a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) diagnosis once seemed like an impossible dream. However, for many, myself included, the right combination of medications and lifestyle changes now make it possible! But adding exercise back comes with a caution: You must listen carefully to your body and more specifically, to your RA body.
Over the years, I have started and stopped working out many times. Why? I kept starting back where I left off earlier in my diagnosis. My body was not ready for that intensity and I paid the price the next day(s) with flares. It took finally starting a beginner routine for me to rediscover my body.
Start off easy
Allowing your body to get back into the swing of regular movement with gentle exercises has many positive effects. First, it lets you build strength and endurance back into your body. It was during a beginner’s routine that I finally acknowledged that I had lost a lot of balance and coordination through my several years of not exercising regularly.
Second, easier routines are gentle enough that you can figure out what exercises work for your body and which don’t. This was a good place for me to figure out that I need to limit my high intensity interval training (HIIT) because too much makes my hips and knees scream afterward.
Know your weaknesses
While RA can affect any part of my body at any time, I know the main areas that even on my best days are problematic — hips, left foot, left knee, both wrists, and right hand. Knowing that these areas tend to be my hotspots, I pay special attention to them when working out, listening to what they have to say.
If any one of them shows I am doing too much, I modify the workout or if it is too much that day, I stop and take a gentle walk.
Listening to your body can be challenging when it is giving mixed signals. Some days I wake up to a body that feels strong and capable and is full of energy. Then, RA steps in and puts a damper on everything.
- Stiff fingers often prevent me from holding the amount of weight that the rest of my body feels ready to lift.
- Swollen or weak knees stop me from lunging as deeply as I feel I could if they weren’t acting up.
- Feet that feel like I am stepping on glass require that I do the low-impact version of an exercise rather than jumping up and down and aggravating them even more.
- Wrists that are always weak mean I wear wrist support during every workout.
- Active nodules on my wrists can prevent the flexibility I had just a day ago.
These are the most difficult days for me. I feel disappointed and frustrated that my overall body wants to give its all, but specific joints are holding me back.
At first, my joints feel like jerks crashing a party. Then I remember how hard my body works for me every single day. It is always trying to keep up — getting me through a day of work, cooking for my family, grocery shopping, and even attempting these workouts. My body is my friend. But like any good friend, it will sometimes do more for me than is good for itself. Time and again I have asked my joints to attempt exercises they were telling me weren’t a good idea. I didn’t listen, and my workouts failed.
Choosing a lighter weight, not lunging as deeply, or doing the low-impact version of an exercise doesn’t mean I have failed. It doesn’t mean RA defeated me. It simply means I found a balance between what I can and can’t do for that day. I won! I listened to my body and therefor completed a workout rather than lying in bed due to a flare caused by not listening.
Make it sustainable
To keep a workout routine ongoing, make it something that will last.
- Find days and times that work with your schedule so there are no excuses.
- Find a duration that works for your body and don’t do any more.
- Choose activities you enjoy. The last thing you want to do when you’re in pain is something that is another drain. For me, it is strength workouts, walking, and bike riding. For you, maybe yoga, Zumba, or a group activity.
Know your body — not the body you had before RA or the body you would like to have — the one that is presently you. Listen to it. Find balance. Exercise with RA doesn’t have to end. It just means it might look a little different from what you expected or wanted.