Take Your RA Body to the Gym!

Follow our rheumatoid arthritis warrior as she shows you how to make your new gym routine a life-long habit.

By now, you have completed another solid week of workouts and are moving toward your goals with purpose. You’re probably more energized and have a more positive outlook about yourself and your condition. Don’t you wish you could feel like this forever? You can, actually: It might take some effort to adopt this new habit, but it can absolutely be done, and your team leaders—personal trainer, yoga instructor, and rheumatoid arthritis patient Darlene Kalina Salvador, and author and sports psychologist Haley Perlus, Ph.D.—are here to help with real-life strategies and advice.

Truth be told, Salvador herself had trouble getting back to her healthy ways after her diagnosis of RA and fibromyalgia. Here’s how she made it happen.

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Salvador was a lifelong athlete; growing up, she played volleyball, basketball, and softball. In her 20s, Salvador was a sponsored snowboarder, an avid cyclist, and a jiu-jitsu enthusiast. A diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia was devastating, but Salvador was determined to not let it sideline her passion for fitness.

When she was ready and able to return to the gym, Salvador had a reality check. “Initially, I could not lift heavy weights and I could not run or ride a bike,” she says. But rather than throwing in the towel, Salvador changed tack and found things she could do that did not cause her pain. This included step class, Spinning, and yoga, which she discovered improved both her mobility and her mental outlook.

The going was tough at first, but Salvador had a support system. “I credit my gym friends with helping me through those first couple weeks,” she says. “The gym is now my second home. I get my workout in, yes, but I also socialize with like-minded people who are passionate about fitness.”

Soon, exercise became an invaluable part of her life again, and she was able to return to her healthy lifestyle with a positive outlook. “Some days, I may wake up and immediately experience pain in my body,” Salvador says. “However, once I start moving, I feel more positive about my body and less focused on the pain.”

Week 3: Live the Life(style)

Many people use exercise as a short-term means to an end. Perhaps they have a summer vacation planned or a wedding to attend and spend the month prior to it exercising like crazy to get in shape. Those types of fitness gains are only temporary if one returns to old habits.

When you have RA, though, it’s the old “marathon rather than a sprint” mentality you need in order to succeed. You’re in this for the long haul and are working toward a lifetime of health and happiness rather than a snapshot in time. Here are some research-backed strategies that can help you adopt gym workouts as part your new lifestyle.

Be Consistent

Consistency is imperative when it comes to changing a habit and, according to a study in the journal Obesity, a good way to promote consistency is to work out at the same time every day. “If you’re not a morning person, don’t work out in the morning,” says Perlus. “Find a time that fits your circadian rhythm.” For example, if your plan was to get up a 5 a.m. to exercise before breakfast, but you only end up hitting the snooze a dozen times and then rushing to work, try heading to the gym at lunchtime or after work and see if you’re better able to stick to that plan.

Buddy Up

Having a workout buddy keeps you motivated and accountable. Good partners push and encourage one another when the going gets tough, and also may help you reach your goals faster: According to a study in the Journal of Health Communication, 54% of people lost more weight and inches when they had a training buddy. “Find someone who is supportive and reliable, and whose age and fitness level are appropriate to yours,” says Perlus. “It also may be helpful if your buddy shares a similar chronic condition.”

Group fitness classes are a good way to feel less intimated at the gym (you’re all in it together!) and befriend like-minded people, and may even have added health benefits: Research in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association revealed that working out in a group reduced stress by 26%, increased emotional well-being by 26%, and boosted physical health by almost 25%.

Stay on Track

Not sure how much progress you’re making with your weekly gym sessions? “It’s easy to set and track your fitness goals on an app or wearable device such as a Fitbit or Apple watch,” says Salvador. “These devices help you stay accountable. They can remind you to get moving, stand up, and even to take just a minute to relax and breathe.”

Apps also may help you move more: A recent study in the British Medical Journal found that those using an app, smartwatch, or Fitbit increased their activity level by more than 1,200 steps per day, or 48 minutes per week.

Not into electronics? Grab a pad of paper and a pen and write things out old-school. Note what exercises you did, which machines you used, how many sets and reps you performed and what weight you used. If you took a class, write down which one you took and how long it lasted. If you did a cardiovascular activity, enter how long you did it for and at what intensity you worked. It’s also helpful to write out how you felt before and after your workout or even the time you worked out; looking back, you might notice trends such as having more energy to exercise in the morning than you do in the afternoon.

Check In With Your Body

Now that you’ve gotten in another week of workouts at the gym, how do you feel? You might still be a little bit sore, especially if you’ve never used some of the equipment at a gym before, but this is a good thing. It means your body is changing and getting stronger. However, your rheumatoid arthritis pain should not be getting worse. Exercise should be helping you, not hurting you.

Assess the program you’ve laid out for yourself and determine if it’s working for you or against you. “For example, if back pain is an issue for you, you have to be careful that your form during strength-training exercises is correct so as not to exacerbate it further,” says Perlus.

And forget the “no pain, no gain” attitude, adds Salvador. “Years ago, I consistently pushed through my pain thinking it would make me stronger. Instead, I ended up causing more pain and injury to my joints,” she says. “Listen to your body. Do more gentle movements or take a rest day.”

Also, beware of overdoing it. It’s easy in the beginning to be overzealous and do too much, too soon. If you’re finding it difficult to manage the number of workouts you have scheduled for yourself, take another look at your calendar and see where you can add in some days off.

Of course, there will be some days where you feel fine but simply don’t want to do what you had planned for yourself. “Rather than skip exercise altogether, try matching your workouts to your daily mood,” says Perlus. “For example, if aerobic activity or lifting weights is too much one day, substitute with yoga if possible.”

Check in With Your Brain

Boredom is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to sticking to a workout plan—and also something that’s totally avoidable at a gym. Use a new machine, try more or less weight, find a different class. Changing things up staves off staleness. “Find new exercise variations or alter your workout split to focus on different muscle groups each day,” says Perlus.

“After a couple weeks back at the gym, I continued with the classes I enjoyed and eliminated the ones I didn’t,” says Salvador. “I also started taking an adult swim class and that felt really good on my body.” Final tip? Don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a workout, says Salvador: “Being consistent with a new routine can be challenging for anyone, whether or not you have a chronic illness. Forgive yourself today, but get right back to your routine tomorrow.”

See you next week for your victory lap!

Lara McGlashan

Meet Our Writer

Lara McGlashan

Lara McGlashan has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and writer in the health and fitness space. She is the former brand director and editor-in-chief for Oxygenm agazine, and currently serves as the