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How I Reduced My Arthritis Pain

By Leanna

Osteoarthritis runs in my family. Mine probably started when I was in my 30s. I’m 66 now. Arthritis affects my left knee, my hips, my hands and my shoulders. My brother and sister, both younger, never exercised as adults and have had hip replacements. Why haven’t I? Perhaps my 30-year practice of Tai Chi had helped in the past, but I’d stopped doing it very often. I was also 70 lbs. overweight and had uncontrolled high blood pressure, even with medication.

Then I had a crisis five years ago. I developed an irregular heartbeat. I was 61 at the time, the same age my father was when he had his first heart attack. I was terrified. It turned out that a benign condition was causing the palpitations but stress tests showed I was at very high risk of serious heart disease in the next few years.

By now I was afraid to exercise at all so I joined a cardiovascular disease prevention program for women. The program made it easy for women like me. They broke the exercises into short segments and encouraged me to increase the amount of time gradually. I also started walking occasionally, but I couldn’t even walk 15 minutes without stopping to rest.

After the cardiac program ended, I kept walking three times a week, but rarely for more than half an hour at a time. And I wasn’t losing much weight even though I was eating properly on a balanced reduced-calorie diet. A doctor suggested my only other option was to exercise more.

I tried joining a gym because I knew weight training was important too. But the weight machines were boring, the rock music was too loud and I kept finding excuses not to go. Three years ago, I joined another gym. This one has a lot of group classes, which I thought might help because I have so little motivation on my own.

Fast-forward to today: for me, the encouragement, friendly competition, energy and power of group classes is everything. I don’t need motivation. I just have to show up for the classes. I’m proud that I’m almost always the oldest person in any class. Who cares if arthritis makes it hard to get down on the floor? So what if I have to adapt some of the exercises to my condition and age? I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself and comparing myself to 25-year-olds.

I can hardly believe that I now do 3-4 cardio classes, 2-3 weight classes and usually one stretch class per week. I average 60 minutes of exercise per day over the course of a week. That’s 420 minutes every week! I keep a log of my exercise and food intake and if I fall short of my goal I’ll go out for an extra walk. Sometimes I take a day off and then do two 60-minute classes in a row on Saturdays: one cardio and one weight training class. Me, who couldn’t even walk for 15 minutes just a few years ago! And I have lost 50 pounds. I may only lose 6-12 pounds a year, but now I have good eating habits that I’ve kept up for so long they have become natural to me. I feel like an athlete: my training has become central to my life. I carry myself differently, am less afraid of falling and have a lot more energy.

About a year ago, an arthritis specialist told me that arthritis gets worse if you stop exercising because of the pain. She said cardio exercise helps reduce the pain and weight training strengthens muscles around painful joints, lessening the effect of arthritis. She also told me to take the maximum dosage of my Tylenol every day, not just when the pain gets bad.

My own screams of pain no longer wake me up in the middle of the night. Sure, I’m stiff if I’ve been sitting for a while, climbing steep stairs isn’t easy and getting down on my knees takes forever, but I have very little pain during exercise, even squats!

I can’t say for sure what helped reduce my arthritis pain – exercise, weight loss, consistent medications, or all three – but I do know that I have experienced gratifying changes in my life. And when I feel guilty for spending so much time on myself, I remind myself that I’ll be less of a burden to my son as I get older.

Based on my own experience, I would encourage you to: increase your activities gradually; make sure you get the right mix of cardio, weights and stretches; and pick something that works for you. And be patient with yourself!

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