Physical activity has always been my home. I’ve always felt a child-like joy when playing a sport, and I’m pretty obsessive about being physically fit to play. So when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 10 years ago, the No. 1 thing that devastated me was the impact that it would have on my ability to play sports and exercise.
Since then, I have learned a lot about myself physically. The first big thing that I learned was that before having arthritis pain, I took my health for granted. My gratitude for any ability that I possess is much greater now that I’ve had some of my abilities ripped away by RA. So staying in shape now is much more about keeping what I’ve got then trying to set personal records.
How do I do stay fit? The short answer is that I ride my Peloton bike and do CrossFit. A more helpful question might be: Why have I chosen those things?
The Peloton really has been the most helpful thing to KEEP me in shape. I never have any excuses not to ride. Rain, shine, sleet, or snow, that bike is always right there in our living room ready to go. Cycling is a great way to get some cardio done without subjecting my joints to much strain. The other thing I love about it is that I don’t have to come up with a workout. I just click on a class session for the amount of time I want to ride and do what the instructor says.
I can say the same about CrossFit. I love showing up and having a workout already written on the board by the coach. I know that CrossFit sounds like an awfully barbaric and intense thing for someone with RA to choose. There are a lot of misunderstandings about CrossFit. Most people see the competitive CrossFitters lifting crazy things and throwing their bodies around, but that’s not at all what CrossFit looks like for regular Joes like you and me.
A good CrossFit coach helps you choose a version of the workout that is right for you. Every workout has a “scaled” version that includes lower weight and less difficult movements. There are also divisions in CrossFit for “masters” (older) athletes, and even “adaptive” athletes who may have a limb difference. The reason I think something like CrossFit is important for a person with RA is that when our muscles (especially our core) are stronger, our joints are protected by that strength. Yes, I know that RA attacks from the inside. However, most of my bad flare-ups have occurred when I’ve physically aggravated a joint and sparked the inflammation because of something I did.
My experience with developing muscle strength has been a slow but valuable process. There is a philosophy of weight training that centers around doing as much as your strength will allow. I have had a difficult time learning that just because that philosophy works for people, it doesn’t work for me.
Giving max effort is what I call “redlining.” As a competitive person, I always felt like I needed to redline as much as possible to raise my ability to do more. I was wrong about that, and I ended up doing more harm than good to my body. The recovery time after a workout is longer as you get older and when you have RA. I have learned that if I go 110% on a workout, it may take me 2 or 3 days to recover and feel like I can work out again. If I instead take care to stay in an 80%-90% effort range and not push myself to the red line, I feel fine and ready to work out again the next day. The difference is being able to do 4-6 workouts per week vs. 1-2 redline workouts in a week. Not to mention, redline workouts are more likely to cause an injury that can result in months out of exercising.
From my experience, I believe that the important things for a person with RA to do for exercise can be summarized in three points:
- Have a base of low-impact cardio that you can do consistently. Examples: walking, cycling, swimming, Pilates
- Strengthen muscles to protect your joints from potential aggravation. Examples: weight training, body-weight strength exercises, resistance band exercises
- Make smart efforts when exercising instead of trying to do the maximum each time. Example: exert yourself, but pay attention to keep that exertion from getting too strenuous and causing aggravation and difficulty recovering.
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