Whether it’s been a while or you never had a gym habit before, find a fitness groove that inspires you—and sticks!
We get it—committing to a gym routine can be tricky, especially if your body doesn’t always cooperate due to the aches or stiffness of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But when exercise clicks as a regular part of tending to your health, it can boost both body and mind. No matter if you’re a brand-new exerciser or returning from a gym hiatus, this challenge is for you. Over the next four weeks, our experts will offer personal stories—including one amazing, couch-to-fitness-competition RA comeback—practical tips, and effective strategies to get you into a fitness studio you love and onward to your goals. You’ll build confidence with each passing week, and will be part of a like-minded RA community who are all working toward better health.
Ready to look forward to your workouts? It’s time to rule the gym!
Your Team Leaders
Meet Darlene Kalina Salvador
At 13 years old, Darlene Kalina Salvador was experiencing pain in her knees and hip joints, but doctors simply attributed this to “growing pains.” At 27, Salvador was hospitalized with flu-like symptoms and a rash that covered 80% of her body. Though doctors initially believed it was lupus, Salvador was eventually diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. She could barely walk when she was released from the hospital. “It was about six months from the time I was hospitalized to the day I went back to the gym,” says Salvador. “I knew I was deconditioned and had lost my flexibility.” But Salvador rallied mentally and physically and today is a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor. She still enjoys many of the sports that she always loved, such as snowboarding and cycling, and spends her free time “hacking” dessert recipes to make them healthy as well as delicious.
Meet Haley Perlus, Ph.D.
A former elite alpine ski racer and coach, Haley Perlus, Ph.D., holds a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, a masters in sport pedagogy, and a Ph.D. in sports and performance psychology. She works with individuals, athletes, and teams to develop resilience, focus, and drive, and also consults with athletes and Fortune 500 executives to help them achieve their goals. Perlus lectures at the University of Colorado as an adjunct professor of applied sport and exercise psychology and has authored several books, including The Ultimate Achievement Journal and The Inside Drive. Her mantra is “You need inner strength to maximize your outer strength,” and this is just what she’ll help you achieve by the end of this challenge.
Week 1: Prep for Success
While you might be chomping at the bit (or shuddering with dread) to get started, there is value in setting yourself up for success with a little boots-on-the-ground research to ensure you find a gym that suits your budget, personality, and goals. Combine that with some mental strategies to inspire and motivate you and you’ve got this small step toward better wellbeing which will pay off as one giant leap.
Pick and Choose
Rather than default to the nearest gym, take some time to find the perfect venue for you. There may be multiple choices when it comes to gyms and fitness studios, so first identify a couple that are convenient to either your home or your work, and that have hours that suit your schedule.
Next, take a tour of each one to see which best meets your wants and needs. Ask what amenities they offer, such as showers, lockers, childcare, pools, and the like. Inspect whether certain showers have safety rails or benches if you’re concerned about balance, or extra seating to rest. “Also, make sure the staff seems friendly and that the gym is clean,” recommends Perlus.
Do you struggle with stairs? Then look for a single-floor set-up; no multi-level-plexes for you! A gym also should match your personality. For example, if you don’t like loud music, then that trendy place downtown might not be your bag.
Once you find a facility you like, ask to try it out—for free. “Gyms normally offer a free three- to seven-day pass,” says Salvador, who also recommends group fitness classes as a way to discover what works for you. “Understanding my body and my new threshold was like discovery mode for me,” she says. “My first week back at the gym, in addition to yoga, I tried a few other classes to see what I would like. I found that I liked step class and Spinning, and hated kickboxing—my body does not like the hard impact of hitting a heavy bag.”
Taking classes is also a way to build a support system. “This ‘fit fam’ of people who share a similar fitness journey to yours can help motivate and inspire you,” says Salvador.
Gym salespeople work largely on commission, and their ultimate goal is to get your John Hancock on the paperwork before you leave. If you’re on the fence about joining, wait until your trial sessions are over to make a decision. If you’re ready to commit, ask about discounts, promotions, and anything else that can keep your membership rates low and affordable.
Less obvious than the issue of choosing a gym is getting into the right mindset to work out. Exercise and being healthy is a lifestyle, so how you approach this process mentally is important.
Many people avoid the gym because they are afraid of looking foolish. If you use a mobility aid, you might also worry about being judged. Don’t be. “People worry they will use the machines wrong or look like they don’t know what they are doing,” says Perlus. “But no one is paying as much attention to you as you think. Everyone is there to work out, and everyone was a beginner at one point. So try new things, make mistakes and learn from them.”
If it’s in your budget, Perlus recommends hiring a certified personal trainer, especially if you can find one who is familiar with working with the chronic community. (Type your zip code into the Pro Directory at the IDEA Health & Fitness Association website to get a list of trainers in your area; check their specialties to see which ones have a focus in fitness for chronic conditions.) “A trainer can give you a solid foundation and can help you get comfortable with the machines and exercises you should be doing,” she says. Salvador herself turned to a trainer early on to learn some exercise modifications. “A few months after I started back to the gym, a friend and I hired a trainer who got me back into lifting weights,” she says. “Post-hospital, I didn’t have the confidence or trust in myself to do it on my own. I needed someone to watch me, and the trainer helped a lot here.”
If a trainer is not your thing, spend some time researching workouts, routines, and how-to videos from reputable sources. “Also, once you’re in the gym, chances are that someone nearby will know how to use a machine or do the exercise you’re going for,” says Perlus. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help—you may even make a friend!”
Now that you’ve chosen your gym and fortified your mindset, it’s time to assemble your gym kit! Here’s what you’ll need:
Quality shoes. While those slip-on sneaks are great for mowing the lawn, they’re not ideal for exercise. Multipurpose sneakers such as crosstrainers are perfect if you’re just starting out or if you’ll be participating in several kinds of activities. We know folks with RA are constantly fighting the good fight with foot pain, so try these other hacks in you’re struggling in the early stages of joining a gym.
Appropriate clothing. Just about anything is fair game when it comes to workout wear, but for optimal comfort, avoid cotton and cotton blends. These absorb sweat, meaning your clothing will stick to you and potentially cause chafing. Opt for clothing made with moisture-wicking fabrics like Lycra to help pull sweat away from your body and keep you cool and dry.
Water bottle. Hydration is important, both during exercise and afterward, so purchase a sturdy, reusable water bottle made of steel or BPA-free material. (Are you hydrated enough? Find out, here.)
Gym bag. A dedicated bag keeps all your gym items in one place, and is great for toting toiletries and clothing if you’ll be exercising around work hours. When you have RA, your fingers may have trouble with zippers and handles—check out these options for you new gym tote.
Inspiring tunes. According to a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology, listening to high-tempo music while exercising can make exercise seem easier. Create a couple playlists that get you going to power through your workout.
Be a Goal Getter
When starting an exercise program it’s important to set some goals. Do you want to lose weight? Gain muscle? Strengthen bones? All of the above? Choose a goal you’d like to achieve and set a course to get there—within a realistic timeframe. “Otherwise, they may work out like crazy and likely will burn out, get injured, or become discouraged,” Perlus says.
Your best bet: Set small goals you can achieve on the way to your ultimate goal. “I recommend making a list of three goals you would like to achieve,” says Perlus. “Write them down and space them over a period of time, and work on each one separately, not concurrently.” Salvador’s first goal when she got back in the gym? To be able to touch her toes without pain. (Tune in next week to see how she achieved it!)
Whatever your goal, write it down and get ready to conquer it! Because next week, you’ll take your first steps toward your new, healthy lifestyle.