Arthritis and exercise are two things that go hand in hand but I personally found them very challenging to combine.
I suffer from psoriatic arthritis and I feel pain and tiredness fairly frequently. Initially, my diagnosis helped me explain my symptoms but it didn’t actually help in terms of trying to be active. It is very easy for others to say, “just exercise and you feel better!” If only it was that easy.
We probably all have this feeling (some more so than others) that we want to do something but we just can’t. I used to be a competitive swimmer and I absolutely love exercising but whenever I wanted to try and move more, I would either be in too much pain and/or too tired to convince myself to go to the gym. I then felt lazy and I blamed myself for my pain. It felt like I was going down a spiral and it was not good. I knew that I had to exercise to reduce pain and fatigue but I was lacking the drive/energy to actually do it.
The point at which things began to improve for me
In April this year I decided that enough was enough, because I wanted to be able to move with less pain and stiffness. What really helped me with increasing my activity levels was a PLAN. I knew that I needed structure in my life to be able to improve. I knew myself too well and it is too easy to say, ‘I’ll do this tomorrow, I’m too tired to get up today.’ Or, ‘If I go and do something, I will just be in pain afterwards.’
So, I sat down and wrote down all the things that could potentially help me, like walking, cycling, yoga, swimming, stretches, pilates, aqua aerobics, core strengthening classes etc. I then thought about including a bit of it into my daily routine and started off with just walking.
I got myself a smartwatch and started checking my step count every day. Little tip: get one with a wide and loose-ish wristband, otherwise your wrist might not appreciate the pressure. My initial goal for my steps was at least 5000 a day. It is surprising how quickly you can get to that and there is nothing nicer than feeling a little happiness from achievements.
I am also in a lucky position where I can walk to work (about 20 min) and that has helped me a lot. With the step count, I felt like I wanted to move. I wanted the number to go up. My smartwatch also vibrates every 30min which means that I will have to get up and clear the movement bar, which I think is 250 steps. So, my step count just went up naturally even through walking around the house.
I also found a local walking/jogging group through Facebook. We meet up once a week and you have people at all sorts of fitness levels (from actual runners to mums with pushchairs and pregnant women). We all meet up and walk at our own pace and chit-chat alongside. I mostly go for the social aspect but it is great.
So, through all of that, I slowly increased my step count to 7,000 a day and now I am doing 10,000 on most days. That totally counts as exercising – especially for us arthritis sufferers. Just the walking made me feel better mentally and it gave me confidence again. Confidence that my body is still capable of working properly and that my disease isn’t as restrictive as I thought. It also helped with my fatigue levels and gave me more energy to try out more.
Apart from the walking, I also decided to go back to the gym. I was one of those people that was paying for a membership and not really using it. Luckily the gym I go to has a swimming pool and since I used to be a competitive swimmer, I went back to doing my lengths again. I started off just once a week but I increased it to twice a week after four weeks. I didn’t push hard but the enjoyment afterwards made me go back.
My gym is a 15-minute bike ride away from my house. So, I cycled back and forth. Sometimes, I felt too tired to cycle and swim, so I just cycled there and back without actually going in. It sounds crazy but it still meant 30 min of exercise.
I love exercising with other people
From the walking group I realised that exercising in a group is way more fun and makes you stick to it. So, I decided to try out a few gym classes.
The first thing I tried was aqua aerobics. Right, so this is obviously my personal experience, but it wasn’t for me. I don’t know whether it was the fact that everyone else in the class was much older than me (50+) or the fact that the exercises were so basic that I just felt broken, but I didn’t enjoy it. Funnily enough, I have just started attending a hydrotherapy class at my local hospital and this one is very good. So, it really depends on the person who does it.
I also tried out a yoga class in my gym and I didn’t enjoy that either. The stretches were great but most core exercises were actually too uncomfortable to do.
What works really well for me is pilates. I had never done pilates before but the combination of stretches and gentle/low impact core exercises felt brilliant. I actually noticed significantly less pain (especially in my SI joint) after pilates classes and I now feel much stronger in my core. I do pilates once or twice a week. Now when I go out with my husband, I am able to walk further and stand for much longer. I took these things for granted prior to my diagnosis but being able to do them again means an increased quality of life.
My daily stretch routine
Last but not least, I try to integrate some stretches and exercises into my normal life. I have a stretch routine that I do every morning and evening. It takes me about five minutes and it is a combination of basic stretches and small pilates exercises. It eases my pain and stiffness and helps me to start my day. I also perform little hand exercises in the shower or when boiling the kettle. It isn’t a chore to do that and I noticed improvement in my overall mobility fairly quickly.
Feeling confident in my body has helped my mental health
Overall, I feel like my arthritis has improved to some degree (it isn’t helping that I am still trying to find the right medication) but my mental health is much better because I feel more confident in my own body. Don’t get me wrong, I do get bad days and then I just take it easy, walk a little bit, use my ice packs and rest. Those days do not get me down as much anymore because this comes with having an inflammatory arthritis.
I have also realised that I can do more than I thought and I feel more in charge of my arthritis. What I can suggest it that you take it easy and set reasonable goals. My small goal was to have less pain and fatigue and I was able to achieve it. I don’t want or need to run a marathon but I would like to do my normal daily activities without too much pain. I will continue my exercise journey as it is doing me good and I hope that I was able to help others with my experience. You have to believe in yourself and be patient. Even baby steps are steps in the right direction. Good luck!