A Guide to Staying Active with Inflammatory Arthritis (part 1)

Blog by Isaac

I’m Isaac, I’m 26 and I was diagnosed with JIA at age 11. Growing up with JIA was pretty tough, I had long periods of time in a wheelchair due to having arthritis in my knee, both ankles, toes etc, my left wrist became fused, I had 50% attendance throughout secondary school and so missed out on fundamental socialisation. I always felt like I was being left behind by the world and suffered with depression and bad social anxiety. But then at 16 I was put on a biologic injection called Enbrel which changed the game. Pairing this with finding the gym at 18 – this is where things really started to look up for the first time since I was diagnosed!  

What drew you toward exercise?

Honestly, I kind of fell into it. My best friend was an avid gym goer at the time and as I was feeling a little better, he invited me to join him one day. After my first session, I was immediately hooked! My endorphins were pumping, my body was becoming stronger and I soon realised the incredible impact that exercise had on not only my physical but also my mental wellbeing. I’m now a huge advocate for exercising with arthritis, I believe it’s a little bit magic! I hope that I can help guide more and more people like me with RA into the world of exercise, allowing them to reap the incredible benefits that I have experienced. 

How important is a personalised approach and consulting with a healthcare professional?

Taking a bespoke and personalised approach to exercise is super important due to the nuances and individualities that people like us with arthritis have. This is the core focus of my business, Versus Limits Coaching, which provides bespoke workout plans for those with arthritis, tailored exactly to their individual needs – and I feel I’m in a unique position of understanding and experience of these nuances having had arthritis for over 15 years myself!  

What is the role of medication and its impact on exercise performance and safety?

Being provided with the right medications that reduce symptoms is paramount to be able to effectively and safely exercise. I would say that medications are often the enablers for us to be able to reengage with exercising. Through reducing pain and inflammation with medication, we’re then able to strengthen our joints and muscles with exercise which is likely to increase our resistance to future flare ups. I’m a huge supporter for combining medication with exercise – I’ve personally found it’s prolonged the efficacy of my medication and massively reduced the amount of flare ups I experience. 

What are the common challenges faced by individuals with IA when it comes to exercise?

Re-engaging with exercise after a flare or trying to exercise when living with arthritis in general can be hard due to fluctuations in pain, inflammation, fatigue levels and mobility restraints. It is important to engage in regular body scans while working out (preferably 3-4 per session) – be responsive to any harsh pain/discomfort by reducing the difficulty of the exercise (reduce speed, weight, number of reps, increase rest times between sets). Exercise can be extremely beneficial for reducing fatigue – all of my clients report they feel more energised and less fatigued after working out, once of the many amazing benefits of exercising with arthritis. Mobility limitations are totally natural for us folk with arthritis, and I would encourage you to work within a range of motion that feels comfortable and isn’t over-stretching your muscles / joints. This will ensure you’re still doing some positive work but without risking injury. Over time, the more you work out, the better your range of motion should become as your joints will become more mobile/supple due to resistance training and your muscles and joints working under load. 

Strategies for overcoming these challenges

Working out with arthritis can be a daunting thought and many experience gym anxiety. This is totally understandable but there are strategies you can put into place to make it easier to immerse yourself into the world of exercise. 

  1. It is a common misconception that you have to be in the gym working out for it to be effective. This simply isn’t true. Purchase some resistance bands and use these at home, starting off slow and familiarising yourself with the movements before progressing in resistance. Using bands is a highly effective and safe format of exercising that I recommend to the majority of my clients. 
  1. Once confident with the basic movements, head to the gym with a gym buddy and practise your new moves with machines first, the progressing onto dumbbells / freeweights. Starting with machines is the safest way to begin in the gym as they have a fixed movement path. Also, having someone by your side will make you feel more comfortable and is just a great morale booster so you don’t feel like you’re in this new mission alone! 

What is the importance of setting realistic goals and celebrating small victories to stay motivated?

Breaking your large goals into small, realistic goals is vitally important to keep you motivated and on track with your routine and progress. Celebrate all your wins in the gym no matter how small! Remember that when you make a single action, however small, that is still progress, it contributes to your larger macro scale goals and is something to be proud of – managed to show up and do 5 minutes walking on the treadmill? Tried out a new machine for the first time? Managed to increase your weight on an exercise after a few weeks? Incredible stuff! You should be super proud as these milestones may seem small, but when you’re living with arthritis these are actually very significant achievements. 

For more information on exercising with RA check out our ”Importance of Physical Activity and Exercise‘ SMILE-RA module.

Join our Exercise & Back to Sport online Group to exchange experiences, information and hints and tips with others who live with RA.

We hope this guide encourages you to stay active with Inflammatory Arthritis! Share your tips and experience with us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram– we’d love to hear them!

Keep an eye out on our blog over the next few months for Part 2 where Isaac gives a bespoke beginner exercise plan for someone with IA.