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5 Barriers to Exercise Because of Rheumatoid Arthritis

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I went to a pilates class this morning. Not a big deal for most people, but for a person with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) it was a huge step.

One of my goals for the year is to do some more exercise, but trying to find an activity that suits me has been difficult. I do lots of walking, but I’m realizing it’s time to push myself a bit more. I have been quite nervous about exercise, for many reasons. I know getting fitter will be a good thing for my health, but my conditions seem to present quite a few barriers to actually doing it:

1. Past failures.

In the past I’ve tried swimming, which I found very painful. That put me off exercise in general, as swimming is supposed to be the “joint-friendly” option. But just because it works for some people, doesn’t mean it will for me and there are many other sports to try.

I tried pilates when I had undiagnosed RA and it was awful. To get there this week, I had to remind myself how less swollen and sore I am now. Just because it didn’t work for me before, doesn’t mean it won’t now.

2. Comparison.

I have lots of super-fit, run-a-marathon type friends. In the past I have felt quite jealous that they can choose to make a lifestyle change and just go for it. But “comparison is the thief of joy” and I have to choose to think realistically about what I can achieve. It might look like nothing compared to others, but for me, the change could be huge.

3. Self-consciousness.

I know in my head that no one will care if I lose balance or can’t do some exercises. But this morning, I felt like I was putting myself on show by going to a group class. I felt self-conscious, but when I focused on my breathing and what my body was doing, I forgot about everyone else in the room. Before I left the house, I just had to ignore the butterflies in my stomach and head out the door in spite of them.

4. Fear of pain or damage.

This is a real factor that needs to be considered when you have damaged joints, or parts of your body that might flare if you overwork them. But, I realize I just won’t know how my body will cope until I try using it. There were a few pilates positions that didn’t work for me, but I could do most of the exercises without hurting my joints. Each week, I will learn more about what I should avoid and where I should push myself to the next level.

5. The compound effect.

I think having more than one condition sometimes makes me think, “It’s all just too complex!” That can cause me to give these health factors more space than they deserve.

For example, my diabetes is a consideration when doing exercise, but I think it becomes scarier when combined with my RA. I worry about having a hypo, but if it happens it’s not the end of the world. I might find it super-embarrassing (I’ll just refer you to my point above about self-consciousness!) but I know how to deal with it and it won’t cause any major issues. Before I had RA, I had a brief encounter with rowing at university — if hypos didn’t stop me then, there’s no reason they should stop me now.

Taking a step back and considering how to overcome each individual issue is a much better approach than seeing myself as a bundle of health-related sports disaster.

I’m determined to overcome these barriers this year. It was my diagnosis of osteopenia last week that was the kick up the bum I needed to finally get me into my joggers and along to that pilates class. Osteopenia is a loss of bone density, probably caused by the combination of my autoimmune conditions. Doing weight-bearing exercise can prevent bone density decreasing further — it made me realize the time has come to stop avoiding sport.

I’m very fortunate — the class I went to is run by a physiotherapy friend of mine who was great at quietly helping me figure out what I could achieve. I feel so good now, both physically and mentally.

The next challenge for me will be to actually get to the class again next week. I want to give myself a pat on the back for “doing it” but getting along to one class is only the first baby step in improving my strength and fitness. However, at least I’ve made that first step, and I’m feeling very happy about it!

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Pexels photo via Fotorech

Originally published: February 20, 2019
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