Set yourself on the path to a fitter future with rheumatoid arthritis. You’ve got this!
You’re now in the final stretch of this four-week challenge. After a few weeks of steady workouts, your new habit may already be helping to alleviate some of your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, and is giving you both physical and mental energy (we hope!).
But when you think about it, you only work out for one hour a day—what can you be doing the other 23 hours to further improve your results and make a difference in your life? Trainer, yoga instructor, and rheumatoid arthritis patient Darlene Kalina Salvador, and sports psychologist Haley Perlus, Ph.D., have the answers.
Putting It All Together
After her diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and fibromyalgia, Salvador knew she had to go back to the gym. “When I started, my mantra was ‘motion is lotion,’” she says. “I felt worse when I did not exercise. The pain and stiffness would return and I’d resort to taking pain medication. This depressed me and also had a negative impact on my overall health.”
Her gym workouts took on a different shape and purpose than when she was training to be a competitive athlete and it’s given her a new perspective on what it means to be fit. “I still snowboard and cycle, but now these activities are more for enjoyment and connecting with my friends and family,” says Salvador.
She also took a long, hard look at her nutrition. “I noticed that whenever I consumed sugar and foods such as pastries, fried foods, and alcohol, my symptoms would worsen,” she says. “It would take a few days to recover and for the inflammation to subside.” Salvador began to consciously avoid foods that caused her condition to flare up and discovered it helped a lot with pain management.
To strengthen her mental outlook, Salvador built on her yoga practice. “Yoga teaches you a mind-body connection, and in moments of feeling overwhelmed or stressed, I come back to listening to and calming my breath,” she says. “Yoga helps me slow down physically and mentally so that I am more aware of those moments when I am feeling anxious or depressed.”
She also began meditating. “I meditate every morning for at least 20 minutes,” Salvador says. “Meditation reminds me to be grateful for everything I have in this life—my health, my breath, my family, and friends.”
Week 4: Rule the Gym—and Beyond
Looking at her lifestyle from all angles helped Salvador develop a plan that worked for her and allowed her to thrive. Here are some things you can do to complement your exercise program and enhance the quality of your life while also managing your chronic condition.
Change Things Up
You might think consistency is a good thing with exercise—and it is, to a point. But your body is an amazing machine, and if you do the same workout time and time again, your body will adapt and your results will stall out. To keep your muscles guessing and better achieve your goals, change your program every six to eight weeks. This can be as simple as switching up days you work out, using a different cardio machine, taking a group fitness class, or adding another day of strength training to your week. Salvador recommends alternating between training upper body and lower body two to four days per week. On the other days, she recommends mobility work such as stretching, tai chi, or yoga.
Don’t Stop Moving
Your active lifestyle does not have to be limited to the gym—and in fact, it shouldn’t be.
“I used to believe that doing more activity would worsen my disease but it is actually the opposite,” says Salvador. “I start each day with something active: gardening, walking, or gentle yoga. This helps lubricate the joints, improve circulation and reduce pain and inflammation. It also helps me feel more positive about my body.”
So on days you don’t go to the gym, do something active with friends or family—ride your bike, go for a hike, or play HORSE in the driveway. During the workday, make it a point to stand up and walk around every hour to help prevent pain and stiffness from setting in.
If exercise is new for you, you might be surprised at how much your appetite has increased. “This is normal!” assures Salvador. Your body is burning the food you eat as fuel throughout your workout and your day.
Choosing the right fuel is especially important especially when certain foods may cause inflammation in the body and exacerbate rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Potentially inflammatory foods may include refined-flour products (e.g. crackers, bread, cereal), sugar, alcohol, dairy, and artificial sweeteners. These foods also can negatively impact your mood: A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that refined, high-glycemic foods can trigger depression and fatigue.
Instead, add in anti-inflammatory foods to your diet. These include tomatoes, green leafy veggies, almonds, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna), olive oil, berries, and oranges. Adopting an eating style such as the Mediterranean diet can help quell chronic inflammation while also fueling your body properly, according to research published in Biomedicines. The Med diet may also prevent certain types of cancer and stave off mental decline. (Bonus: a 2021 study in Nutrients revealed that the diet is also ecologically sustainable.)
“Personally, I had good results from the Paleo diet,” adds Salvador. “Eliminating grains and dairy was key for reducing my inflammation.”
Get Plenty of Sleep
Many Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night, which can negatively impact your immunity, weight, and disease risk. “The good news is that when you work out, it leads to better sleep, which makes it easier to function and manage your mood,” says Perlus.
Practice good sleep hygiene (that’s doc-speak for habits) to optimize your nighttime hours. Turn off all electronics at least an hour before hitting the hay, and try to go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time every morning. Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet, and set the temperature to around 65 degrees—the ideal temp for sleeping, according to experts. Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime, and if your mind won’t quiet down, try a guided meditation or a hot bath. And if you haven’t been lifting weights, consider starting: Resistance exercise was shown to improve sleep, according to new research presented by the American Heart Association.
Check In With Your Body
As you continue to exercise, you’ll likely notice that things that were once difficult are now easier. This means that your body is getting stronger and it’s time to give it a new challenge. Increase the weight you use, change the number of sets you do, or increase the number of repetitions you do for each set of an exercise.
Also revisit your goal—how close are you to achieving it? If you’ve veered off course, analyze your program to redirect your intentions. And if you’ve already achieved your goal, it’s time to make a new one!
“I had always wanted to do a fitness competition, and when I worked at Weider Publications, I met so many fitness athletes that inspired me, but I was too afraid and insecure to actually enter one,” says Salvador. “But a few years ago, I was visiting a friend in Vegas who was about to compete, and when we went to the gym I saw a familiar face: bodybuilder and four-time Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler. We talked about his Olympia days and I felt inspired. That week, I made a new goal and entered my first bikini competition.” OK, so bikinis and/or competitions in which you wear one may or may not be your thing. The point is, don’t underestimate how reaching one goal can inspire the next.
Check In With Your Brain
Your mental progress in this journey is as important as your physical progress, because if you’re bored or uninspired, you’re less likely to stick with your fitness routine.
Visualization is a technique elite athletes and successful businesspeople use to boost confidence and ensure success. Plus, according to research published in Physical Education, Sport and Kinetotherapy Journal, it can improve motor skills, increase confidence, decrease anxiety, and even build strength. Take an Olympic skier. She might “see” herself executing a perfect run on a downhill course, “feeling” every turn, and managing every obstacle. You can do this as well. “Think of a time when you felt strong, or picture an image that makes you feel powerful,” suggests Perlus. “If you begin to lose steam or motivation while exercising, play that image over and over in your mind as if you were watching a short clip on Instagram.”
You can use the technique outside of your workouts, too. “Visualizing an overall healthy, mobile and flexible body also helps me get through physical pain and challenges on a daily basis,” says Salvador.
Like they say, comparison is the thief of joy, and this rings especially true when it comes to fitness and health. “Everyone loses fat and develops muscle differently, so don’t get hung up on what others are doing,” says Perlus. “Don’t doubt yourself because of your rheumatoid arthritis. Just because you don’t see immediate progress does not mean you’re doing anything wrong or shouldn’t keep going.” Find what works for you and stick with it, she encourages: “You’ll see results.”