Staying Active with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Six years ago, when I was 32 years old, my doctor diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis. At the time, I was in the military and I’d worked previously as a police officer. You have to stay physically fit in these positions. Moving was always part of my job.
But in 2012, my outlook on physical activity changed after I collapsed with multiple blood clots in my lungs. It wasn’t clear what caused the blood clots—whether it was the rheumatoid arthritis, the treatment I was receiving for the disease, or something else entirely. What was clear, after the fact, was that my rheumatoid arthritis was worse than ever. I couldn’t perform at the same level anymore. I needed assistance—even for minor tasks like tying my shoes. While lying in bed, I thought about everything that I took for granted. I wished I could run. I wished I could do jumping jacks.
So I made a conscious decision. When I recovered, I wouldn’t exercise because I had to. I would exercise because I wanted to and because I could.
Now, I have a real passion for staying active. Whether it’s yoga, aerobics, dancing, or simply walking, I’m constantly moving. I find on the days where my knees hurt or my neck is tight, constant movement relieves the tension.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, so keeping your stress levels low is important. Too much stress will weaken your immune system, which can result in a flare-up. You need to find balance. When I have a high-stress day at my job, I try to work out more. And that doesn’t have to mean going to the gym or going to dance class. If I can’t find time for those structured activities, it’s OK. I can walk in place at home, or up and down the stairs. I can lift some light weights while watching TV.
When you’re first facing a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, it’s really easy to focus on your physical limitations. It can be very frustrating. But I’ve learned to treat those limitations as opportunities; they’re challenges to think outside of the box. I’m still in the military; only now when I’m training at work, I do my push-ups against a wall to take the pressure off my wrists. I grab a buddy to help me with my pull-ups; I bring in an exercise ball for my sit-ups.
What’s important is to focus on what you can do at any given moment. If you take advantage of what your body can do, you can create your own challenges. Stretching and practicing yoga helps me measure my progress. Maybe I can’t touch my toes, but I can touch my ankles, so that’s what I do. I stretch closer and closer to my toes every time, and I know eventually I’ll be there.
So how do you go about cultivating this positive focus? Well, in my own experience, meditation works wonders.
I’ve recorded my own guided meditation tape to help me think positive thoughts. It’s really taken on a life of its own. On my most painful days, when I don’t want to take my medication, I meditate on health and healing, and I notice a significant decrease in pain and inflammation. Meditation provides mental stress relief, which is necessary because I’ve learned it really is mind over matter.
Rheumatoid arthritis is not an easy journey. There’s trial and error at every turn. But focusing on what I can do has allowed me to not only live with rheumatoid arthritis, but to live well.
Aisha Whisonant lives in Union City, Georgia, where her 12-year-old daughter, Greylynne, helps keep her on her toes.
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