Rheumatoid Arthritis and the paradox of exercise


Young beautiful woman in the gymExercise hurts.

Exercise hurts normal people.  Exercise hurts people with inflammatory arthritis even more.

But exercise helps.  It really does.

But first it hurts.

Over the last few months I have been able to exercise less and less.  And depression has reared its ugly head…partly as a side effect of medication, partly as a side effect of rheumatoid arthritis and mixed connective tissue disease and partly as a side effect of life!

Depression is most certainly worse when I can’t exercise.  The irony being that it’s so much harder to motivate yourself when you are depressed.  Especially when you are also dealing with constant physical pain.  Each feeds on the other…it’s a vicious circle.

So I started doing less and less time in the gym.  And when I did get there, I did shorter workouts. Easier workouts.   Mostly because it hurts so damn much!  Not like normal people hurt in the gym…much, much more.

But it also ‘hurts’ that I can do less than I used to.  Lift less weight.  Perform fewer exercises. Make adaptations.   Always having to leave a class half way through really has a way of getting you down.

My instructors are wonderful. They know me, and they understand.  They are supportive in every way.

But I wasn’t supportive of myself.  I wasn’t accepting of my body’s limits.  I let it get me down.

So I decided to take a break and see what would happen.

As you would expect, I got worse.

And I lost my only real social outlet.  I lost touch with my gym buddies.

And the depression got worse.

Solution?  Get back to the gym.  In any capacity that I can.  And be satisfied.  No comparing myself to other people.  No comparing myself to what I was doing this time last year.  Just take every day at a time.  And be proud of whatever I achieve.

Sounds easy, right?

It’s not.

It’s extremely hard.  Not only does it get me down emotionally, it hurts physically and it’s much easier to just give up and tell myself I can’t exercise anymore.  It’s so tempting to ignore all the benefits of exercise (cardiovascular health, keep joints mobile, mood elevator) and just give in.

And then my little girl asked me to get fit with her.  She’s 11, and she wanted to go walking and running, because they have been learning about the importance of fitness at school.

I wanted to tell her I couldn’t do that anymore.  But the words wouldn’t come.  I remembered my own words…”there is always something you can do, on all but the very worst days”

So I dosed up on my ms contin and oxycodone and we started with a 500 metre jog.  I’m not sure it was really a jog. It was more a shuffle. I’m not honestly sure if both feet were ever off the ground at the same time.  And it was all downhill.

The second day we did 1km.  Still all downhill.

The third day we did 1100metres.

And then I had one of those knockdown flare days where I could do nothing but lie down.

But two days later, we did another 1100meters.  And we stopped at the playground on the way back.  And we played.

And you know what?  It hurt! It really hurt a lot!  Trying to jog, however slowly on these joints is not fun.  But afterwards?

I felt better.

My mobility is improving again.

My mood is improving again.

Years ago I used to do 5km as a ‘short run’, but that no longer matters.  I did 1100 metres!  With my little girl and my son in tow.  (Actually they were ahead of me…LOL). We did it together, and I’m so proud of them.  And I could see they were proud of me too.  We have something we can do together, whenever I can.  They feel like they are helping me, and I feel like I am helping them.  And that is what matters the most.

The most important gift that mixed connective tissue disease has given me is time with my children.  I was a career woman before.  I miss my career very much, but my kids and I are close.  Some people would kill for the opportunity to spend that much time with their kids.  I have been given this time, and although it has come at a very high price, I am still grateful for it.

And I am back on track. Yesterday I went back to the gym, and did a 30 minute spin class.  I bought myself a heart rate monitor, so I can keep track of my exertion levels.  I am not as strong as I used to be. I can feel my muscles fatiguing very quickly.  And I can’t get my heart rate up very high…I just don’t have the strength or the power, nor the stamina.  My muscles actually feel like they are ‘melting down’ sometimes.  I don’t know if this is a new symptom or a side effect of Arava.  I seem to remember it caused muscle weakness last time I took it.  But I can work up a sweat and put in a decent workout.  And I’m not competing anymore.  Not even with myself.

Each day is a new day.  Each day I have different capabilities.  Today I think all I will be capable of is a few stretches.  And that is enough.  I’m being grateful for what I can do.  And every little bit helps.

And the depression is receding.


  1. Drs appoint $250, Medication for RA $150, Physio $95.Spending time shuffling 1100mts with you children-PRICELESS. Thank you RA for the gifts you give when you take away!!!! Keep it up girl your PRICELESS. xxxxxxx

  2. Go YOU!! You are so inspiring. And I so get it. We’ve just come back from two week’s holiday – and the day before we left I had an infusion of prednisolone so I could get a bit more relief… It was wonderful, and I had so much more mobility – to the point that I was actually able to ride one day. Just an hour, but it was fabulous to be on a horse again. That’s wearing off now, and the pain is coming back. I’m a week out from my next appointment and we’ll be putting an application together for Enbrel – please G-d I get it and please G-d it works, because I’m at my wits end trying to cope with a huge change in my RA over this last year and a half that took it from long term (20 years) mild to hugely aggressive. I can’t take MTX or plaquenil. I’m on Arava and Salazopyrin, but they’ve only done so much. I’ve lost my job, I’m losing my hair from all the drugs, I’ve gained I don’t know HOW many kilos and I’m hating it. My partner is wonderfully supportive, and this week, we’re going out to buy a spin bike for home so I can do that, and I have to go hassle the people a the gym where I used to go to see if they’ll give me a reasonable deal on membership just to use the pool. I used to swim miles…and got to love it, and this flare put me in hospital, and I’m nowhere near where I was physically. But, I’ll get there. And so will you. It sucks going through stuff like this to find out what strong people we are though!!

    • Yes, we are strong, Karen! Shame we have to be quite THIS strong tho, isn’t it? LOL. I’m glad you have a supportive partner – I think the spin bike is a fantastic idea! Fingers crossed the gym will be sympathetic. Even more fingers crossed for the Enbrel tho! I hope it comes through quickly and works for you. It could turn your life around and I truly hope it does! And in the meantime, we keep fighting 🙂

      • Yep – being a survivor isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!! I used to watch people around me falling apart and try to figure out how they managed it – AND then had others running around doing all sorts of stuff for them… At the end of the day, I’m too darned stubborn and independent to let myself go down totally, so I guess I’m just doomed to being strong and surviving – oy!! Things could be worse. I don’t think those people who fell apart had been blessed with my twisted sense of humour. Your site is amazing, BTW. I’ve been prowling around it for a little while now. Decided I’d better surface and interact a bit.

        • Well I’m glad you’re here Karen, I can always use more friends with a twisted sense of humour :). Sounds like we have lots in common. And thank you. Looking forward to getting to know you better 🙂


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