What Women With RA Can Do to Protect Their Health

Patient Expert
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Certain chronic disease is on the rise in women and if you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your risk increases even more. For instance, type 2 diabetes and heart disease are also increasing in women for other reasons, especially obesity, and are becoming some of the leading causes of disability and death. However, many of these are preventable, even when you have other types of chronic illness, such as RA. Protecting your overall health will help you be well in the future.


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RA-related risk factors

RA itself can contribute to your risk of developing other chronic diseases. RA is a systemic illness, which affects not just your joints but also internal organs, including your heart. By treating your RA, you are limiting the effects of inflammation on the heart, therefore reducing your risk of heart disease. However, certain types of medications can also add to the risk. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can affect heart health, and steroids can make it hard to keep the weight off. Even biologics may cause weight gain.


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The role of medication

Despite the possible side effects, medications are important tools in the fight to control the effects of RA. For instance, the biologics have caused a significant decrease in incidence of cardiovascular disease, helping people with RA live longer and healthier lives. At other times, NSAIDs and steroids may be necessary to treat active disease and pain. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of taking different medications to make sure you make the right decision for you.


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Protecting your health: start with your doctor

When you decide to take steps to protect and support your overall health, start with your doctor. An annual physical will identify issues that may need to be addressed. As well, getting referrals for preventative care, such as a mammogram, colonoscopy and stress tests can ensure you stay on top of what’s going on in your body. Your doctor can also refer you to other health professionals, such as a dietitian to help with healthy eating and a physical therapist to get started on exercise.


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Quit smoking

One of the biggest gifts you can give your health (and yourself) is to stop smoking. All smokers know that tobacco is a bad idea, but it can be very hard to quit. Your doctor may be able to help with smoking cessation aids. As well, apps and stop smoking communities such as Quitnet can help you be successful to quit and stay quit. As you plan to end your relationship with tobacco, it might help to know that quitting cold turkey has been shown to be more effective than gradually tapering.


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Losing and maintaining weight

It’s important for everyone to maintain a healthy weight, but especially when you have RA. In addition to helping you prevent obesity and related chronic diseases, it’s also easier on your joints. Did you know that every pound you lose takes 4 pounds of strain off your knees? But RA can make it difficult to be physically active and medication might get in the way of losing or maintaining your weight. Choosing to be as healthy as possible may be a more productive and emotionally satisfying goal.


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What diet should you use with RA?

At this time, research on diet and RA is limited, but some foods may potentially help., There is a good collection of evidence that the Mediterranean diet can play a role in reducing inflammation, and there is also some evidence that eating vegan or vegetarian can be helpful. That said, the response appears to vary from person to person and something else might work for you for you may not respond at all. Get guidance from your doctor or dietitian when trying new diets.


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Be aware of calories

One of the reasons obesity rates are rising is that we eat more than ever and more than we need. On average, an adult eats 300 calories more than they need per day. I am not suggesting that you obsessively count calories, because that way lies misery. But being more aware of the calories you actually need and how many are in the food you eat will help you make choices that support your health. Put simply, If you go over your daily need, you gain weight. If you go under, you lose weight.


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Portions and servings

We have lost sight of what an appropriate serving of food looks like. Portion size has increased in restaurants and prepared foods, leading to increasing portions at home. Know what a serving is and how much of that food you should have every day. If your portion sizes have grown, it may help to serve meals on smaller plates. As well, a good guideline is for your plate to consist of one quarter protein, one quarter starch, and vegetables to fill the remaining half.


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Healthy eating

Eating a balanced diet works better when you plan. Meal planning will help you get a detailed shopping list so you don’t get tempted by things you might not eat (reducing food waste is healthy for your budget and the planet). Meal prep once a week will make eating healthy and cooking simple throughout the week. RA may make it difficult to do all of this on your own. Involving family and friends makes it easier and fun, and teaches the next generation about healthy choices.


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Substitutions

Substituting one thing for another can help you be more healthy and this goes for both food and exercise. You’ve probably heard of zucchini noodles, but wrapping your meal into a lettuce leaf instead of a tortilla can reduce calories. Use hummus instead of mayo on your sandwich and maybe even use the sides of a bell pepper instead of bread. Substitutions also work with activity. If you can, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and walk or bike short distances instead of driving.


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Start moving

Physical activity can be a challenge when you have RA, but it’s important for your body. It keeps your joints mobile and strengthens muscles, which supports joints and reduces pain. A physical therapist can help you with an exercise program that respects the needs of your body. On bad days, your activity list may be different than on a good day. RA-friendly exercises include modified yoga, tai chi, and exercising or walking in water.


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Any journey starts with the first step

Considering what you need to do in order to get stronger can be completely overwhelming if your chronic illness prevents you from moving much at all. Remember that any activity counts. Cleaning parts of your house. Gardening. Taking a walk after dinner. Doing any beginners fitness program. Splashing around in a pool. Making a sandwich. Moving a little every day, going just over your limit, but no more, will build strength and stamina over time.


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The next fitness step

Many people with RA are experiencing low disease activity and even remission. If you are already physically active, there are ways of modifying your workout to accommodate your RA. If you have been more sedentary, getting started can be overwhelming. Having fun while you move this a good way to start, so check out classes in your area for something that interests you, whether it’s rockclimbing, Zumba, horseback riding, or hiking groups.


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Your mental health

Make sure you include your mental health in your plans. People with chronic illness are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. You may benefit from some counselling for medication to help you cope with the challenges of RA. Other ways to take care of your emotional health may include self-care, meditation, connecting with others who have RA, and even chocolate truffles.


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Be patient

Becoming healthy when you have RA is not an oxymoron. By combining medical care, diet, exercise, and mental health coping techniques, you can become as healthy as possible under the circumstances. However, because you have RA, it might take longer than it would for others. People who don’t have a chronic illness may be able to see results within a month or two, for you it might take double or triple that time. Don’t measure your progress using someone else’s ruler. You’ll get there!