The Great Debate

To exercise, or not to exercise?  That is the question, fellow RA’ers.

The problem is, when you don’t feel good, there is no way in heck you’re gonna do anything active.  And when people suggest to us that we would feel better if only we would exercise, we get offended.  “Do you see my joints?  Do you know how much they hurt?  I’m not hoping in a pool anytime soon, no matter how much you promise me it’ll help.”  That’s usually our take on exercise.

I’ve been pretty closed-minded about exercise.  I put limitations on myself that I didn’t even know were true or not.  “Swim for an hour?  I’d probably pass out of exhaustion after ten minutes, maybe.  Hike up a mountain?  You know how much that’d kill my knees?  I can’t do that.”

This is a picture I took at Yellowstone less than a year after I was diagnosed. We had to hike to see it. If I had decided the hike was too much for my RA, I never would have seen this magnificent view!

It is important for us to listen to our bodies when we hurt.  If we are performing an activity and something begins to hurt, it’s time to stop.  But we can’t assume things are going to be bothersome.  It’s when we put more limitations on ourselves than necessary that we start to let the RA control us.

Since the beginning of the new semester, I’ve been trying to become more active.  And it’s easier  to make myself follow through because I have an active roommate this year.  Every opportunity I had to go swimming, I went.  And it felt really great to move around freely without feeling any pain or stiffness.

Yesterday we tried to go swimming again, but with the rainy season upon us in Arkansas, it was way to cold to feel comfortable swimming at all.  Instead, I remembered a recent visit to my new (and improved) rheumatologist.  She explained the importance of exercising, and that her patients that exercise and much better in the long run than her patients that do not.  She said it was the difference in whether or not those patients could walk or not.  My rheumatologist told me not to run, EVER, but to swim and to ride a bike.

As a kid, riding my bike was my absolute FAVORITE activity.  I took pride in my bicycle.  Every so often I would even clean it (I thought I was so cool!). The thought of starting the sport again was exciting to me.

When the pool was too cold to swim in, my roommate and I ventured over to our university’s recreational center.  We found the stationary bikes and plopped down.  I started limiting myself immediately, without evening thinking about it.  “I’ll probably have to take breaks pretty frequently,” I said.  “I’ll probably only go two minutes at first.”

I started without any resistance and found it boring.  The machine was kind of complicated so it took me a while to figure out how to change the resistance, but once I did I set it to five instead of one.  It was just challenging enough for me.  I watched the clock slowly tick away on the machine, and I didn’t feel any pain coming.  Next thing I knew I had biked three miles!  My muscles were tight, but there was no pain whatsoever.


Apparently I didn’t exercise long enough, because my muscles aren’t even sore today (although my Dad said it could creep up on me late tonight or tomorrow, so I’m skipping the bike today until I figure out if it will or not).  I haven’t felt any bike-related pain.  I remember my elbows hurting during dinner last night, along with a few other random joints, but nothing that could have been derived from the workout.

I’m not saying exercise is for everyone, and I can’t promise that you’ll feel as great after the workout as I do.  If you have any swelling I would definitely talk to a rheumatologist before trying any activity involving that joint.  But if you haven’t tried exercise, don’t write it off.  It’s worth the try.  That way if it doesn’t work, you can cross it off the list of things to try.  But if it DOES work…wouldn’t you want to know?

I’ve been swimming as often as I can since the beginning of school, so about three weeks.  It may take you that long or longer to see any benefits, but if exercising doesn’t irritate your joints, keep at it!

So I guess to answer the “Great Debate” – it will help some, it won’t help others.  But the main thing to remember in this argument is that you never know until you try.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Great Debate « My Bum Thumb |
  2. Laurie
    Sep 08, 2010 @ 18:59:41

    I exercised before my diagnosis, then let it drop off I was so weak, then just plain lazy, now I’m trying to build things up again.

    I worked out on the elliptical today, and I’ve added 10 minutes to my time recently and my feet don’t like it at all. For the last 6 or so minutes, the balls of my feet really hurt and basically I just keep going, saying over and over in my head “F… you, RA.” (Sorry if that offends anyone, but it just really gets me that I feel that crap RA pain.)

    So today I did my elliptical workout, then went out and on the way home decided to walk home from the subway – a 25 minute walk. At first my feet were NOT happy. But then, lo and behold, after walking for about 10 minutes, they were absolutely fine!! Go figure.

    That’s the weird thing about RA. Things change from minute to minute. One minute you hurt, the next you don’t. All to say, don’t let a little pain stop you from moving because it might just pass. A caveat of course: Because I’ve worked out pretty extensively prior to RA, I know what “injured” feels like compared to “RA craziness” feels like. If you’ve never done much exercise before and you’re doing something more than just walking or bicycling, work with a really good fitness trainer at first– it’s worth the money for the benefit you’ll get. And even if you’re just doing walking or biking more or something, take it easy at first and work your way up. The key: just get moving, then moving more and more!

    Just my two cents worth… 🙂 L


    • Cari Elliott
      Sep 14, 2010 @ 13:26:00

      I’ve thought about getting a trainer before, but I definitely do not have the money for it, being a broke little college student. But as soon as I get a steady job going I’m so looking into it. My sister is taking yoga in college and her teacher is a physical therapist, so she can alter movements to fit our needs. I’m going to look into that as well!


  3. Manda
    Sep 10, 2010 @ 10:13:38

    Hello again!
    I was so happy to see an update on your blog in my blog-feeder. They are alway so inspirational and great to read.
    I to have been doing lots of swimming and biking lately. I live in FL, so don’t have any chilly weather to worry about. I’ve been swimming and/or bike riding now for the past 6 weeks or so, and feel great! It’s great exercise because I have an ankle injury and RA is hating my hip-joints lately… so that makes walking difficult…. the pain is 99.9% non-existent in the pool and on the bike though!
    I normally tire out quickly, but I gently pushed myself, and am now swimming 50 laps and biking about 7 to 10 miles at a time (I didn’t start off with those numbers.) I think it helps to beat back the fatigue that RA causes, and gives me a boost of energy to get through the day.

    Keep up with the exercise, you’ll feel so much better and have more energy 🙂


    • Cari Elliott
      Sep 14, 2010 @ 13:32:38

      Thank you, Manda! I’m happy to be back. I know it’s been a while since my last blog post. It’s encouraging to hear how much you are able to exercise without much pain. I hope I can get up to those same numbers! That’d be awesome. 😀


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