I want to talk a little about fitness with Arthritis and Lupus before I talk about what I have been doing lately.
Firstly, I will put my own words to the large concept that is Rheumatism, or Rheumatic Illnesses, from my experiences. The spectrum that encapsulates all of the illnesses that are in some way related to Rheumatism fall under the identifier of inflammation. Primarily the inflammation occurs in the skeletal system and most commonly and specifically impacts upon the joints of skeleton. The skeleton is bone. The bones are joined to one another most often by tendons with muscles running between the tendons and wrapping around each other and the bone as support. Where one bone ends and the next begins cartilage encases the bone to allow for friction free and controlled ranges of motion.
In highly active joints a soft tissue sac (Synovial Cavity) surrounds the exposed joints and cartilage, in which a fluid called Synovial Fluid provides a buffer to prevent everything just collapsing in on itself and compressing the bones together. Arthritis, and I believe some other Rheumatic conditions, occur when the bones in a joint erode away the cartilage and then the bones. The synovial fluid is not present in the quantity needed which allows the erosion and friction to occur. As bone wears away bone and cartilage the waste that comes off remains in the joint as grit and aids in the friction. Inflammation occurs at each point on the way, as does the lack of synovial fluid and failure to remove the excess grit. In the worst case scenarios the bones fuse together as there is too much grit and no fluid or cartilage to prevent the damage.
It is my belief that the muscles of the body need to be open, or stretched, as well as strong. When the body is trained to operate with muscles that have been stretched to their natural positions, and only then encouraged muscle building exercises with open muscles, that the pressure of the inflammation which occurs as a result of Rheumatic disease can be overcome.
Simply put: Stretch the muscle out, build it up. Stretch, build.
Why do I say this?
I feel a lot of exercise considers stretching as a warmup and cool down. I feel they utilise the stretch in a “Isn’t this a lovely preparation” way and not in a “This is the most important part of your workout” way. We know a lot about The Flex (muscle contraction), most of workouts are about The Flex. Most activities are about The Flex. If you want a good example of Flex….
But what about The Stretch (muscle extension)? Did you know when your muscles are fully stretched you can also build very strong muscle? Did you know that when you do it this way it is easier, requires less strain on the body, lasts longer and barely shows (for all those ladies like me who don’t want to look like a beefcake)?
After I spent a few years in a deep pit of loss and woe for what I had been able to do, I began exercising very softly on my back. Nothing funny here! I started with Stott Mat Pilates. There are a few different kinds of Pilates and I haven’t tried them all, but I do know enough to recommend all those recovering from injury, or wishing to start out softly or without joint impact it is important to go for a ‘Matwork’ Pilates class, as the types with a Pilates apparatus involve some elastic based jumping that may be too much. You work on controlling one muscle group at a time, and will focus on different areas of the body each class, although each will cover the entire body to some extent. Mostly your first focus is stretching out what is troubled and then you build up glutes, ‘core’, arms….well you get the idea. Many Pilates classes are run by Physiotherapists, and it is advisable to find one such class and FULL DISCLOSURE for them because SAFETY. Go slow! I was in beginners for 6 months. Then I was in the experienced class within 3 months. By the end of the year I was cycling 20 kilometres once a fortnight and could take short walks regularly without fear of a counterattack by the Arthritis.
Shortly after I started cycling I found a Physiotherapy-run general yoga class. Again I started as a beginner and FULL DISCLOSURE. Again there are many types of yoga and I have much more experience here! DON’T DO ASHTANGA OR BIKRAM, it’s not for the chronically ill in the beginning. Look for a Beginners Vinyasa, Flow, Hatha or Remedial. If in doubt, don’t sign up for a class if you cannot get a good recommendation, or have a chat with the teacher that leaves you feeling confident and comfortable.
Pilates evolved in part from yoga, as well as a whole lot of other stuff. The premise of both is to open the muscles through stretching and then to work on strengthening and controlling individual groups or pairs at a time. After an extended period of time working in this manner the body can eventually relearn how to perform everyday actions. You can change your posture or how you lift objects. You can change how you walk, how you breath and even your heart rate and ability to focus on something.
This strength, this change, this control don’t just last while you are ‘in session’. They don’t last for a few weeks afterwards. They can last years. It is my belief that when you strengthen stretched muscles, through methods of exercise such as Pilates and yoga, you are creating a strong supportive structure around the skeleton. When this exists in your body and you have learned how to stretch out and ease your own tensions, not that you’ll have anywhere near as many, you will no longer need your skeleton, except for it’s more primary focus of protecting organs.
What I’m saying is: The Muscles hold you up. The Muscles hold bone off bone. The bone doesn’t wear. The inflammation recedes (not disappears, that’s absurd).
So when people speculate about “Have you tried…”, and yet aren’t able to elaborate further perhaps you might want to think about this idea. Please note, this is what I have concluded. I have enquired about this with my Rheumatologist and my Immunologists and they have encouraged me in this idea and supported my explanation. But I am not a doctor, nor do I have a qualification in any field related to medicine and so what I say is based on my own experiences, research and could be misread depending on how I have compiled my words.
What I just wanted to do here, was share my understanding of Rheumatism versus exercise. I wanted to provided an opportunity for the individual to consider how their chronic illness may be affecting their physical activeness and a chance to develop a bit of confidence to indulge in a light amount of exercise in this new year.
It is possible to have a physical impairment and still be physically active.
It is just about knowing your body and what is going on so you can best get around this rather tricky obstacle.