Managing Chronic Pain, Exercise
Fitness Tips: Managing Pain & Exercise
I have arthritis. Specifically, I suffer from Ankylosing Spondylitis. It’s an autoimmune disease, and it causes my body to attack itself. Subsequently, I hurt. At the worst times it feels like someone is jamming scalding hot knives in my joints; at the best of time I ache with a mild burning sensation. Despite this, I stay active … very active, in fact. I regularly rock climb, go to the gym, stretch or do yoga, and lift weights when my body allows. I also snowboard, in-line skate, run, and cross-country ski, etc, etc. So how do I do it? I manage my pain with diet, varied exercise regimens, and Western meds. I no longer can do whatever I want, when I want. This is, of course, frustrating at times. Sometimes I just want to go rock climbing, gosh darn it. On the other hand, this process is teaching me to listen to and respect my body like I never have before. Here are some useful tips I’ve found to manage my pain and still exercise:
1. I stretch whenever I can—at the airport when I’m waiting to board the plane, before I get out of bed in the morning, when I’m standing in a long line at the grocery store, or whenever I have a free minute to lie on my living room carpet. I have practiced yoga for 20 years, and so I have a great repertoire of poses to choose from, including standing poses for when I’m standing in lines and spinal twists for when I’m laying in bed. If you don’t have a regular yoga practice, I recommend you find a great teacher and take a weekly class. Then start working random poses into your day. People sometimes stare at me strangely, but the older I get, the less I care. I care more about feeling great!
2. I sit in hot tubs whenever possible. This sounds counter-intuitive. Aren’t you supposed to ice when you have aches and pains? Not if you have arthritis. My rheumatologist always jokes that his patients regularly ask him for prescriptions for hot tubs (I tried). There are times when heat is not ideal, such as when you have an acutely inflamed or swollen joint, when you have an open wound, or in certain compromised areas. But it is s really great way to relieve muscle spasms or muscle tightness, and to increase the range of motion of your joints.
3. I move and/or exercise daily. Sometimes when the pain is bad, I’ll just go on a walk, lie on my floor and stretch, dance on my patio in the warm sunshine or ride my bicycle to the post office. It doesn’t matter what I do as long as I keep the blood flowing. When my body can handle it, I do more serious exercise routines—do the elliptical machine for 30 to 45 minutes, lift weights, go on a short run.
4. Most importantly, I take some time every day to listen to my body. Set aside 20 minutes, a half hour, two hours, whatever your schedule allows, and commit yourself to doing something in that time period, whether it’s doing 100 sit ups or just walking around the block. For me the goal is no longer to get the hardest workout that I can, but rather to make sure I move every day.
5. I try not to beat myself up if I can’t push myself as hard as I planned to push myself (or as hard as I did when I was 20). Sometimes a work project keeps me up late, and I’m too tired to run on the elliptical machine for 45 minutes. So, instead I go at a slower pace and for less time. And, I practice being OK with that. Really, what is important is that I get some exercise every day.