Before rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I always thought that staying active was solely physical. This was especially the case because I’d spent my life playing baseball. Only when I had a disease that diminished my physical abilities and ended my sports career did I learn that staying active means more than just keeping physically fit.
Of course, it is important to condition our bodies on some level of physical fitness, but we must find ways to keep our minds active as well. On days we are stuck on our couches, when it hurts to stand, and we even throb just sitting still, it can be easy to dwell on RA’s impact on our lives. But that can be toxic and taxing to our health over time.
So how do we keep mentally active? I do not encourage simple distraction and quick gratification, but more challenging, more sustainable, and even (at times) more frustrating mental activity. Staying mentally active should be more of a journey than a destination, if you will.
Imagination goes a long way
Don’t: Binge watch movies or TV series. We’ve all got our favorite shows. The ones that make us count down the days to the next episode. What’s-his-name gets beheaded, or cheats on his wife, and we can’t wait to text our friends and read what people are saying on Twitter. With so many shows receiving buzz these days, it can be tempting to just watch them all, especially with RA sentencing us to our couches. But watching TV doesn’t demand much of us, and thus does not give us all that much in return. After a while, the mind becomes restless and needs more productive activity.
Do: Read books. As children, librarians would tell us that reading allows our imagination to flourish and invites a deeper connection to a story. In this digital age, that wisdom seems more important, particularly to those with RA who are immobile and in pain. Reading is a more prolonged and vibrant stimulation.
Do: Compose your own script. Write your own book. Sure, the thought of it is daunting and the likelihood of it turning into a Spielberg blockbuster or Netflix series is slim, but the process itself is a productive means of escape. Creating something from scratch to completion is liberating.
Create your own happiness (rather than trolling the happiness of others)
Don’t: Scroll through Instagram or Facebook scanning through pictures of people skiing in Lake Tahoe, snorkeling in Waikiki, and selfie-sticking in Patagonia. Once again, the process of viewing pictures on social media does not ask much of your mind, and can eventually leave you depressed.
Do: Ignore your phone for a while. Take the backroads somewhere and find your own beautiful landscape or moment. Bring a friend or loved one. Have a conversation, reminisce, or tell a funny story. The experience can be cathartic, not to mention scenic.
Don’t: Don’t scroll through photos of everyone’s gourmet meals.
Do: Cook your favorite meal, from scratch.
As a reminder, you’ll notice that these recommended activities are a bit more involved, and perhaps tedious, than the activities I have discouraged. This is because, in the case of mental activity, the journey is the reward, not the destination.
Of course, this is a small sample of the many ways we can occupy our minds in healthy, productive outlets. Remember that just because we can’t physically do some of the things we once loved, it doesn’t mean we must fill the void with empty distractions. We also mustn’t spend time dwelling on what’s been lost. Which brings me to my concluding suggestion for maintaining mental fitness:
Don’t: Spend your time lamenting the hand you’ve been dealt.
Do: Play actual cards with your friends!
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Emil DeAndreis is a baseball coach, and an English professor at College of San Mateo. His memoir, Hard To Grip, chronicles his journey of losing a professional baseball career to rheumatoid arthritis. He lives in San Francisco with his wife. Follow along with Emil on Twitter.