Pilates With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Patient Expert
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Growing up, I wanted to be the best pitcher I could. The general understanding was that to be a good pitcher, you needed to run and lift weights and throw all the time. So I did.

In my teens, I idolized Barry Zito — a left-handed pitcher just like me. He played for my favorite team, the Oakland A’s. He was cool because even though he was an elite pitcher, he was kind of goofy and unorthodox. He had long hair and played acoustic guitar in the clubhouse. He looked more like a pro skateboarder than baseball player. Something else about him that was unconventional was his workout regimen. He attributed much of his success to yoga, and Pilates. This was 2002. Back then, I thought these were leisure activities for housewives, before their 11 a.m. Bellini brunches. Men did not do yoga and Pilates. I went through college baseball always wondering about these workouts, but never trying them. Since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I’ve actively tried a variety of exercise routines to find those that agree with my body. I recently went to a Pilates class at my local gym to determine its compatibility with my RA, and here’s what I found.

The lingo

Our instructor began the class with us standing.

“It’s important to have proper posture when doing Pilates. Let’s first bend our legs,” she said.

I bent my legs.

“Not like that.”

She zeroed in on me — the only man in the class. My worst fear was made real: Women everywhere were at once staring at me.

“Bend your legs again.”

I crouched.

“No. It’s not a squat. Bend your legs.”

I was bending. And for the record, I had been taught squatting was the only proper way to bend.

“Stand up straight,” she said.

I could do that. Phew.

“Think of it like this: Your head is one with the sun, and there is a beam of light coming from the sun, through your head. It drives down to your pelvis. Then it drives through your pelvis. Then, your fingertips are sun rays that create a triangle.”

I was beginning to look at the exit. It was frustrating to try to imagine something that seemed painful and impossible. But I’m glad I stuck it out.

Balance

Other principles of Pilates include balance, precision, control, and concentration, we learned. These principles were called into action when we were were tasked with lifting our legs off the ground, and reaching our arms up, and holding ourselves in a V-position for extended periods. In this position, we turned left and turned right, rotated our arms. This all challenged our core muscles. Weak cores were exposed immediately; mine sure was trembling.

The body rotations were slow and excruciating. I tried to maintain my posture and control of my body. I thought this would be very useful for people with RA because there was a challenge to a vital part of your body (its core) without putting any pressure on any joints.

With RA, strong cores are crucial because they can help us stay balanced and centered. With strong cores, we are able to control our bodies and take some pressure off of our sensitive joints.

Relaxation

Throughout the hour-long class, we spent a considerable amount of time lying on a mat. We reached out with our hands above our heads, we extended our toes, the aim being to elongate and stretch ourselves, while controlling our breathing, which, our instructor informed us, was one of the six principles of Pilates. The stretching and breathing were quite relaxing, and it helped that we were doing all this to Chopin “Nocturnes.” While these moments were not physically demanding, they helped me be aware of my body. They helped me listen to my body. They helped me give my body oxygen.

With RA, these are all important actions, and sometimes we have so much going on in our lives that we forget how important they are to our health. I appreciated Pilates for this.

Ultimately, I found my Pilates experience worthwhile, but for different reasons than I had originally anticipated. I expected the experience to be like yoga — excruciating acts of balance and body weight. Balance was involved, but everything was gentle.

Rarely were we put in positions of having to put our body weight on specific joints, like our ankles or knees, like in yoga.

In my class, the only area that was engaged in any significant way was the core (I fully acknowledge that this class may have been elementary, and that Pilates can be escalated to more challenging levels). For these reasons, however, I feel Pilates might be a viable option for those with RA who are certain that even modified yoga or exercise would be too much for their bodies.

I found the practice of being centered, and focused, and relaxed, with controlled breathing, very valuable to my RA. Of course, before trying anything new, talk to your rheumatologist to see if it might be something you can try.