How I Exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis and My Advice to Those Who Want to Get Started

Spoons Vs Exercise – How I crush chronic fatigue and pain from rheumatoid arthritis with exercise

If there is one question I get asked a lot, it’s how do I exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis?

When I was diagnosed with a debilitating chronic illness, the same illness which landed my aunt in a wheelchair and morbidly obese there was a time I lost hope in ever being able to be active. I didn’t expect this to be my reality at 29, I felt like my body was rotten and no good.

Exercise seemed next to impossible with the amount of pain I was in and how tired I always felt.

There was a time when I knew nothing about exercise, I didn’t know how long I needed to exercise for, what exercises target what muscles nor did I know the benefits of exercise other than weight loss because that’s visual. I wanted to exercise, I was uncomfortable in my own skin and leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

Educating myself and developing a routine where physical activity and healthy eating became a major part in my daily life slowly transformed my life in the ways I was truly craving.

Now I’ve been regularly exercising for the past four years. I’ve had bumps in my routine because life gets in the way. Each time I’ve stepped away from regular exercise up goes my fatigue, my pain, cognitive dysfunction, depression, anxiety and I feel like a hot mess. Sure I can take my medication and get some results but I’ll get more if I add in being active and eating healthy.

When I couldn’t rely on medications I could rely from some of the benefits exercise gives but I had to be gentle with myself at first. I did need to rest more often but as my inflammation lowered, a biologic that worked for me was found and my body was becoming stronger I could do more and more with exercise and daily life.
It was a process, not an event.

Recognize your personal barriers that come with exercising with rheumatoid arthritis, make a plan of attack

Fatigue, joint pain, lack of motivation, memory problems and fear of hurting myself are some of the barriers I experienced (and still experience) before I felt comfortable with adapting a more active lifestyle.

Anxiety and depression played a pretty big role in me not going but once I recognized it was my thoughts holding me back I chose to not listen to that voice anymore (it’s a daily struggle). All the steps I needed to take felt like a massive emotional bandaid I had to lift, corner by corner til I could really face the wound underneath. Treating those wounds and treating myself right was what I needed. I had help from medication, cognitive behavioral therapy and my social worker to work on my emotional struggles. It was the words of my social worker “exercise will help your pain” that really gave me the push I needed to hear to take it serious.

Where and how I learned to exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Mary Pack Arthritis Center in Vancouver BC is where I have seen a few physiotherapists who specialize in arthritis care and help guide me in the beginning of what types of exercises are safe when in a flare. Here I took their water aerobics classes which I found beneficial in the start of my exercise journey, when my joints were flaring and I was just learning how to move them, they also taught me how to use resistance bands and range of motion exercises. I can not stress the importance of a good physiotherapist (seek out one with advance arthritis care) to help guide you on proper form and technique. Ask your rheumatologist for a referral.

The Arthritis Society offers classes taught by physiotherapists in a group setting held at the Mary pack Arthritis Center in British Columbia, which always made me excited to converse with others going through the same thing as I and listen to their questions, stories, thoughts and concerns. You can learn a lot from others going through the same thing as you. Connect with your local chapter of arthritis organization for arthritis and exercise classes near you.

Taking my exercise routine to the next level I can thank Arthritis Research Canada who for the past 2 years I have been participating on their Arthritis Patient Advisory Board where I have involved myself in studies about RA and exercise. Participating in these studies has given me access to to researchers, physiotherapists and occupational therapists who’ve helped guide me along my exercise journey. The extra cool part about that is my journey with them will help others living with RA exercise and live healthier lives. I had an amazing opportunity to share my exercise with RA story at the American College of Rheumatology conference with one of Arthritis Research Canada’s researchers in November 2019.

Where I go to exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Recreational Center that is close to my home. I pay about $60 a month for my unlimited month pass, there they have various cardio machines and a weight room, yoga classes, pool, sauna, hot tub, etc.. I could go to a fancier gym further away but because I live with fatigue I found exercising close to home helped keep me more consistently at it, sometimes just a commute somewhere can tire you out. If there is no gym near you, there are things you can do at home, machines to purchase for at home or simply going for daily walks is a great form of exercise with arthritis. During the covid-19 pandemic and closure of the gym I found more ways to exercise at home and focused going on long walks which gave me much of the same benefits I found in my gym.

When living with RA it’s important to keep your body moving, finding exercises you can do at home will help.

What I do for exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis

The elliptical is my go to exercise because it’s a low impact form of cardio that moves my whole body but mixing up various exercises keeps me more interested plus different muscles moving so more benefits. Over time I added in things like the rowing machine or long walks with some jogging. I find bikes too painful for my back and hips, for a long time a treadmill would have been too difficult and painful but now I don’t mind the occasional brisk walk/jog on the treadmill. I usually only spend 30-40 minutes 4-5 times a week on the elliptical but the stronger I got over time I could handle doing more. There are some days where I go for two walks because my mind and body need it. Rheumatoid arthritis is a unpredictable disease, you’ll learn to listen to your body and what it wants.

Strength Training
Strength training has many different exercises to do, some which I can’t (push ups or sit ups) and some I can or I have to make adaptations to be able to do. For example I couldn’t do a lunge without holding onto something for balance, so I held onto my kitchen counter but over time the stronger I became I could do them without balance help and with a kettlebell in hand. If I find my joints can’t handle all repetitions of the exercise I will take breaks, sometimes hours apart, so I would do a few reps in the morning and a few later in the day because the movement throughout the day helps with pain and stiffness while keeping my fatigue balanced. The stronger I get the less breaks I need in between exercise though. Remember, it is a process, not an event.

What I Use

  • Resistance Bands
  • Kettlebell
  • Step
  • Dumb bells
  • Medicine Balls
  • Barbell Plates
  • Yoga Mat
  • Ankle weights
  • Fitness Exercise Ball
  • Rowing Machine
  • Elliptical
  • Treadmill

My Favorite To Do Exercises

  • Squats
  • Sumo Squats
  • Leg Extensions
  • Side Leg Extensions
  • Side Leg Raise
  • Glute Bridge
  • Flutter Kicks
  • Lunges
  • Standing Crunch
  • Inner Thigh Lifts
  • Step Ups
  • Planking
  • Bicep  Curls
  • Tricep Extensions
  • Tricep Kickbacks
  • Rear Delt Fly
  • Upright Row
  • Chest Press
  • Shoulder Press
  • Body Rows
  • Arm Circles
  • Lying Skull Crushers
  • Hammer Curls
  • Reverse Fly
  • Dumbbell Side Raise
  • Bent Row

What helps me exercise with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Obviously finding the right biologic helped me get more into different types of exercises but so does eating the right foods for proper nutrition to give my body what it needs. Enough protein to give me energy and staying hydrated are critical, I also focus heavily on getting as many fresh fruits and vegetables as I can (30 a week). I don’t bother with supplements, I focus on eating a proper diet, getting enough rest, my exercise routine to obtain my ultimate health, I’ve taken them before and not felt much of a difference other than stress over being able to afford all that is recommended by unlicensed professionals and research doesn’t back them. I found changing my mindset on food as nutrition to fight illness and function really changed the way I ate. I get a ton of inspiration for healthy food choices and recipes by following registered dieticians on Instagram or other RA warriors that post their exercises.

Music keeps me moving. I use music streaming app Spotify when I work out, each Monday and Friday it recommends me new music to check out which always helps motivate me in getting moving. If you would like to hear my favorite exercise tracks, listen here.

Last but not least, I look cute while I exercise, I’m all about fashionable leggings made with comfortable fabrics and not too difficult to remove sports bras (RA hands!). I’m not there to impress anyone but myself, so why not have fun while I do it too? 


Resources for exercising with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Please don’t just listen to me, do your own research and consult with your healthcare professionals for proper guidance. Here are some great sites if you want to read more about exercise and rheumatoid arthritis.

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