Rule the Gym Like an #RA Warrior

Welcome back, rheumatoid arthritis crew! In week two, it’s all about easing in and beginning to build momentum to an exercise habit that lasts.

Last week, you chose your ideal workout facility and, with the help of our team leaders, got together your gym kit and get-moving mindset. Now it’s time to take action — no matter what changes your RA may call for. Personal trainer, yoga instructor, and inspiring RA warrior Darlene Kalina Salvador — along with sports psychologist Haley Perlus, Ph.D. — are here to help you overcome any mental hurdles as you get into your rhythm at the gym. Feeling a wee intimidated? Check out Salvador’s story of returning to the gym and the roadblocks she had to overcome.

From Hospital Bed to Yoga Mat

When she was 27 years old, Salvador was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. “At my worst, I was bedridden,” she says. “Every joint in my body hurt. My spine was inflamed and I had to use crutches. I fell into a depression, and in addition to being on anti-inflammatory drugs, I had to be put on antidepressants. ”

Eventually, Salvador realized the toll her condition was taking on her two small children. “I could see in their eyes that they were concerned, sad, afraid,” she says. “Their ‘light’ had dimmed and I felt horrible. I decided I had to rally for them. ” Her first step was to return to exercise. Salvador, a lifelong fitness enthusiast and athlete, had avoided the gym for months because she was afraid her condition would prevent her from doing what she had done before. But instead of giving up, she adapted her regimen to include movements that would not exacerbate her pain. She also began to practice yoga.

“I remember my first yoga class — I could barely do a forward fold without experiencing pain in my lower back and hips,” she says. “My muscles were so tight and tense. But after a few classes of gentle stretching and movement, my range of motion started to improve. ” Salvador had set a goal to touch her toes without pain, and when she achieved it, it was cause for celebration.

Though she still has flare-ups, Salvador credits exercise with her forward progress. “Doing something every day helps lubricate the joints and reduce pain and inflammation,” she says.

Prior to her diagnosis, Salvador was a regular gym-goer. Not you? Don’t worry: This brand-new experience will get a whole lot easier with Salvador to guide you through.

Week 2: Go After Your Goal

Remember the goal you set last week? It’s time to chart a course towards achieving it. If you signed up with a personal trainer, discuss your goals with him or her, and use one of your sessions to map out a plan of action. If you’re flying solo, look at your calendar and see where you can schedule time to exercise. Can you get up an hour earlier and work out before breakfast? Can you go to the gym or take a walk after work or during lunch? The key is deciding on a time and sticking to it. Enter your workout into your calendar and treat it as an appointment you have to keep, like a business meeting or doctor’s visit.

No matter what your goal, there are many routes to get there. “I always tell people to do what you love,” says Salvador simply. “When you participate in activities you enjoy, you will be more likely to stay consistent and continue with it.” For example, if you love to dance, you might enjoy a group fitness class such as Zumba. If you want to get stronger, look into strength training. Not sure what you love? Try a little of everything and see what sticks. Here are some of the activities available in a typical gym setting.

Strength Training

Lifting weights is great for people of all sizes, ages, genders, and abilities. It strengthens bones, builds muscle, and improves balance — three things that are crucial when you’re living with RA (or many other chronic conditions). What’s more, a 2022 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that adding 30 to 60 minutes of strength training to your week can help you live longer.

If you’re new to the gym or testing the waters with your body’s strength level and capabilities, machines are your best bet. They help keep your body aligned properly and teach you the correct movement patterns used for an exercise. For more experienced exercisers, equipment such as barbells and dumbbells are fair game. “Free weights challenge you by incorporating more muscle recruitment, improving stability and strength,” says Salvador.

Cardiovascular Training

Cardio exercise has been linked to everything from losing weight to improving mood to staving off dementia, and it has a place in everyone’s workout schedule. There are two kinds of cardio activity: aerobic and anaerobic. Aerobic exercise elevates your heart rate and sustains it for a duration of time. It improves endurance and stamina, and helps with weight loss. Examples include jogging, Zumba, swimming, and walking. Anaerobic means “without oxygen,” and this kind of cardio is high in intensity and short in duration. It strengthens bones, improves balance, builds muscle, and burns fat. Examples include sprinting, jumping, and other explosive movements.

Both kinds of cardio are beneficial, helping regulate blood sugar, improve sleep, and relieve depression. A review published in Blood Advances also found that cardio benefits the immune system, and the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that low-impact activities such as walking can help reduce chronic pain and improve endurance.

There are all sorts of cardio machines available in a gym: treadmills, stationary bikes, stair climbers, elliptical trainers, and rowers. Ask a staff member to show you how to use each one and give them all a try. Who knows — you may discover you love rowing!

Group Fitness Classes

Need guidance and inspiration? There are more ways to strengthen muscles than using heavy metal and more ways to get your heart-rate up than with a cardio machine. Many facilities offer group fitness classes such as yoga, strength training, interval training, dance, and more. Look at the class schedule and see what you might like to try. You can even watch a couple before jumping in with both feet — so to speak!

Be Adaptable

Exercise helps alleviate symptoms of many chronic conditions, and can improve your quality of life as well as your mood. “Exercise alters the chemicals in the brain in a positive way,” says Perlus. “And for those with chronic conditions, it can enhance coping abilities and improve self-esteem.”

Find movements that work for your body, your goals, and your rheumatoid arthritis — and give yourself permission to discontinue activities that exacerbate your pain or make your RA symptoms worse. “I used to believe that in order to have gains, I had to lift heavy weights or do high-impact exercises,” says Salvador. “But when I would run, it would cause too much pain and inflammation in my knees and hips. I changed my routine to work for me rather than against me, and now I walk on a treadmill at an incline instead of running and still get in a great workout. ”

Whatever you do, leave the past in the past. “Don’t focus on what you can’t do or what you used to do,” says Perlus. “Focus on the now.” In other words, if you used to play tennis and now it causes you pain, learn to love something new. There are so many ways to stay active you’re sure to find an alternative (badminton, anyone?) That gives you just as much enjoyment.

And be sure to join us again next week for Week 3 of your Rule the Gym Challenge!

Lara McGlashan

Meet Our Writer

Lara McGlashan

Lara McGlashan has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and writer in the health and fitness space. She is the former brand director and editor-in-chief for Oxygenm agazine, and currently serves as the editor-in-chief for Maui Nō Ka ‘Oi magazine.

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