Maintaining a Healthy Diet and Exercise Plan With RA

Patient Expert

If you’ve gotten as far as reading this first sentence, I’m impressed. After all, "diet and exercise" is a phrase many of us hear and think, “Oh, yeah … that.”  When dealing with pain and fatigue it can sometimes feel impossible to put energy into eating well and motivating ourselves to exercise, no matter how integral those behaviors are to our overall health.

The important thing with diet and exercise is to find what works for you.  Find what makes both your body feel good and what makes you happy. Just as every manifestation of RA is a little different, the treatment plan will be, too. It can take some self-testing to find what works.

Willpower vs. habits

It can be easy to look at "diet and exercise" cumulatively as something that we either have the willpower to tackle, or we don’t. But it’s really about growing healthy habits, and with that, willpower comes naturally.  It’s important to reframe our thinking around those two words and take any negativity away from both of them.

“Diet” may conjure up images of rice cakes, sad salads, and deprivation. But focusing on foods that fuel and nourish your body can be very empowering, i.e., knowing that what you eat today can make you feel better tomorrow.  After stocking my pantry with foods that agree with my body, it’s much easier to have the willpower to avoid cravings -- because certain unhealthy foods simply aren’t there. When I’m out and presented with an option that I know may trigger more pain and inflammation, I weigh the risk versus the reward. Is it worth enjoying this food in this moment? Or is feeling my very best tomorrow more important to me? That said, sometimes I certainly do live in the moment. I’m only human.

“Exercise” may conjure up sweaty infomercials, guilt of not going to a gym, and feeling exhausted. Spoiler alert: I haven’t had a gym membership in over five years, and I’ve never been stronger. Now, many of you will stop me right there and say that you can’t "exercise" because of your RA. But what is exercise? It's some form of movement, and movement can be walking around your yard and photographing plants -- something my mom and I both enjoy doing on our rougher days. It can be rolling your wheelchair down to the beach to watch the birds, as Lene Andersen—RA HealthCentral writer, social ambassador, and advocate—does.

Exercise can be many things, but most importantly it should be fun and leave you feeling better. Start with only five or 10 minutes, see how you feel the next day and build from there. And if you don’t feel up to any movement one day, that’s alright, too. It’s important to listen to our bodies, and not beat ourselves up when the body simply says rest.

As with any new diet and exercise plan, do remember to first consult your medical team. They can help you make the safest decisions for your body and disease.

Goal setting

When setting new goals for health, I have personally found that there are two good ways to approach it based on your personality. Either dive all the way in, or start very small and work up incrementally from there. For example, years ago when I decided to completely cut out processed food, I went through my pantry and fridge and got rid of everything that didn’t fit with my new eating plan. But when it came to giving up dairy, I was more incremental. I first replaced milk with almond milk, and then phased out cheese and butter, among other healthy food swaps.

It’s good to set larger goals to motivate you, for example, “I want to have more energy.” This is one I’ve made for myself, and motivates me on a daily basis. I know that by making better food choices today, I will feel better tomorrow. My body has also shown me that to gain energy I have to spend energy.  If I can’t find it in myself to exercise today, I will remind myself that by improving cardiovascular health and strengthening my muscles today, I will actually be able to do more tomorrow.

William James, a philosopher, psychologist, and physician, noted that “every bit of work has to be decided anew each day.” This is true of healthy goals with RA. Every day is a chance to wake up and try to make the best decisions we can for our bodies and our wellbeing, and if today I choose to eat that amazing apricot croissant from my favorite Parisian bakery, I enjoy it and don’t beat myself up about it. Because, hey -- the entire reason we’re trying to take better care of ourselves is to live longer, more fulfilling lives. My advice is to make the best decisions you can from day to day, but don’t forget to live a little!

See more helpful articles:

5 Ways to Exercise with RA

Using Sports Psychology to Live Better with RA