Throughout the past few months, I’ve been on a quest to find new ways to achieve fitness with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). While I’ve written about my experiences from the perspective of a man living with RA, my aim has been to enlighten anyone — regardless of age, gender, or how many years diagnosed — on different fitness options. My hope is that everyone can find something fun, engaging, and most importantly, pain-free. Until this point, I’ve taken a spin class, done yoga, and found some RA-friendly workouts in the gym.
My wife frequents the Zumba classes offered at my gym. I’ve never known much about Zumba, other than its energetic music and high-intensity dancing, led by an instructor. Other things I’ve observed: Typically, a class has high concentrations of spandex and women, and very low concentrations of men. But recently, I decided to boldly step into the intimidatingly effeminate confines of a Zumba class for the sake of investigative journalism. Here is what I found from my experience, as it pertains to RA.
The positive: constant movement
The dance instructor was lively and encouraging. The Latin music was easy to dance to, with consistent downbeats for us to keep up with. For one hour nonstop, at the very least, we were walking in place, or moving our hips from side to side. But for a majority of the time, we were doing much more than that.
We kicked our legs, pumped our fists, or both. We held body squats, which tested our legs, our balance and core. Anytime we stood in place, we were jumping to the beat, pumping fists in the air — not much different from celebrating a touchdown. Within five minutes, I felt myself start to sweat, and as we kept moving back and forth — performing different variations of skipping, squatting, kicking, punching, thrusting — the sweating never stopped. My heartrate was healthily raised and sustained.
Of course, the glory of Zumba is that it is for everyone. Plenty of people in the class couldn’t jump the whole time — nor could they scoot 10 feet to the right, wiggle their hips then skip 10 feet back while punching the air, all on rhythm. Out-of-breath people took breaks. Unrhythmic people (like me) could find themselves hopelessly off-beat without experiencing ridicule from the group (though at times I did see my wife in the gigantic mirror trying to suppress a laugh attack because of me.)
After the class, I had soaked through my shirt with sweat and was heaving for air, and at no point had I experienced any RA-related pain. In that sense, Zumba was a success.
The negatives: confusion, and “twerking?”
Like my experience with yoga, I was new to the Zumba game. This meant I was unfamiliar with the different dances and routines being done by the instructor. Others in the class had done enough Zumba to follow without stumbling all over themselves. I often found myself just getting the hang of a routine — five steps forward with a hip thrust, a 360-twirl, a back step, then a sidestep, and repeat — before the instructor moved on to a new one, leaving my feet tied in a knot and a question mark hovering over my head. Again, like yoga, with more experience, this would not be an issue, but for people new to Zumba, expect some confusion.
Along with confusion came a bit of (ahem) insecurity with regard to some of the dance moves going on. At times, I found the instructor and those around me “twerking.” By no means was I offended by their very non-ambiguous chest- and butt-thrusting, however, as a man, I felt ill-equipped and unjustified to join in on the action. But I didn’t want to just stand motionless, while all the women twerked, because I thought that would be even more awkward, and perhaps creepy. So, I swallowed my pride and looked like a buffoon while likely traumatizing everyone else in the class. Do understand: When you sign up for Zumba, on some level you may be asked to get in touch with your sexiness, for better or for worse.
Anytime I am able to work myself into a heavy sweat without experiencing RA-related pain, I consider it a success. Zumba provided just the right amount of challenge for someone with RA, even with the added task of attempting some very unmanly moves. As always, before trying any exercise for the first time, discuss your approach with your doctor.
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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.