‘Realistic goals’ is an expression you hear a lot when you have rheumatoid arthritis. If you are used to being super active every day it takes a bit of readjusting to the idea that you can keep active, but not as much as before. Articles on walking for fitness often cite the figure of 10,000 steps a day as the ideal for an average adult. But let’s face it, how many people actually a) wear a pedometer to keep track of their activity or b) even manage to reach this figure? It’s more helpful to think about time and quality of movement rather than the number of exercises you perform.
Yesterday I attended a session on ‘Exercise and Rheumatoid Arthritis’ which was fascinating. Even though I knew the reasons why it was such a good thing, it was valuable to be reminded that it’s not just about easing joint stiffness and improving the range of motion in a joint, but also about keeping your heart healthy and maintaining bone density.
Another useful reminder was thinking about the different exercise types: stretching, strengthening, fitness and balancing. Out of all of these, apparently there is less evidence around balancing as being beneficial for people with RA, but it’s still worth doing. With stretching, the key is to stretch ‘to the point of muscle fatigue’, starting slowly with a 5 second stretch and gradually building up to a 30 second stretch 3 times a week. Easier said than done, as I have definitely over-stretched in the past and regretted it later on! The physio suggested Nordic walking, which sounds intriguing, where you walk with special poles (a bit like ski poles). Definitely something I’m considering.
Strengthening can be as simple as bending the arm and lifting it up, starting without a weight initially, then moving on to do the exercise with a small weight (such as a filled water bottle). Or lifting the legs one at a time while sitting down.
When it comes to balancing, writing your name in the air with your hand or leg seems a fun activity to do – I haven’t tried it yet but planning to do so this evening! Fitness is an interesting one because I used to run every day for an hour but at the moment that just isn’t possible (swollen knees, painful hips etc). The key is to make yourself a little breathless so that you can still talk to someone for 5 minutes. I think walking up stairs or walking fast is a good way to do this as it’s a low-impact activity on the joints. Doing 30 minutes of physical activity 5 times a week may not seem achievable at first, but when you break it down into 5 minutes climbing the stairs, swimming, or walking 5 minutes down the road, it soon adds up.
Although it’s obvious, it was useful to be reminded to cut down the level of exercise if I’ve overdone it, and to take a day off if my joints are swollen or painful. Not forgetting non-slip, shock absorbent footwear – often stylish these days as well as practical.
I left the hospital feeling motivated to stick with the current exercise plan and to consider trying other options (Nordic walking is at the top of the list). A few days ago, I came across an apt description for the way I’m feeling now, which ties in brilliantly with what I learnt in this session – the slogan ‘I’m possible, not impossible’.