Managing Exercise, Diet, and Stress
How do exercise, diet and stress affect my arthritis?
Coping effectively with any kind of chronic condition takes courage and persistence. It also takes a level of acceptance. We can’t change a lifelong chronic condition, but we CAN change how we deal with it.
Receiving your initial diagnosis can be very overwhelming and it is quite normal to have feelings like denial, fear and anger. However, being able to acknowledge that it is part of your life is a big step in helping you to move forward and find ways to manage your arthritis effectively.
Three key areas where you can regain control are:
While any sort of movement may be the last thing you want to do when you wake up each day feeling stiff and in pain, regular physical activity can go a long way to help you feel better.
Many people may also be cautious for fear of doing more damage to their joints. In fact, research shows that appropriate and individually tailored exercise is one of the best ways to treat arthritis, by:
- Strengthening your muscles and tendons, giving more support to your joints
- Increasing your energy levels
- Improving your heart health and circulation
- Increasing your lung capacity
- Reducing your weight
- Generally improving your mood and emotional wellbeing
- Improving your quality of sleep
- Some forms of exercise can also reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis
What are the consequences of not doing regular exercise?
Thinking about negative consequences is never fun, but sometimes we need to know what they are in order to gain the motivation to do something about it.
A lack of physical activity in those with arthritis can result in increased weight. This is not helped by the fact that some medications also contribute to weight gain. The extra kilos put increased stress on your joints resulting in more pain and making it even harder to move easily. Being sedentary can also restrict blood flow throughout the body, lower our energy levels and lead to weaker muscles.
What can I do?
The term ‘exercise’ is quite broad and it may invoke images of long hours at a gym or of running for miles. If you are barely capable of walking around the house then that form of exercise is clearly not for you. Consult with your doctor to establish what your actual capabilities are and then choose a type of physical activity that suits your body, your preference and your lifestyle. Look for forms that are low-impact and non-weight bearing at first, then gradually try forms that are a bit more demanding. Here are some you might like to try:
- Tai Chi
- Warm water exercise / hydrotherapy
- Muscle strengthening exercises
- Chair based exercise
How does diet affect arthritis?
While there are no scientifically-backed ‘cures’ for arthritis, eating well can certainly improve your overall health and help to decrease some of your symptoms.
Some people say that eating certain foods can either improve or aggravate their symptoms. This can be difficult to prove as there are so many other factors involved, such as medications, ‘normal’ fluctuations in daily symptoms or other lifestyle factors. However, people with specific intolerances or gout can be affected by particular ‘trigger’ foods.
There is a tremendous amount of research being done into how food affects our immune system, particularly in relation to gut bacteria. A number of studies have focused on specific foods such as turmeric and fish oil, and these do tend to have an effect on inflammation. The dosage levels and consumption methods required to be effective are still the subject of much debate. What is certain is that we still have a lot to learn about this complex relationship.
What are the consequences of a poor diet?
When your diet is out of balance your body will struggle to generate a consistent amount of energy to get you through the day. Having lots of caffeine or sugary fixes may give you an instant pick up but it generally doesn’t last long and you often feel even more tired afterwards.
When you cut out whole food groups such as fruits & vegetables, wheat or dairy you risk missing out on essential vitamins and nutrients that your body needs to create energy, fight diseases and repair damaged cells. If you do need to eliminate certain foods, then be sure to replace them with a nutritional equivalent. It is important to seek the assistance of your GP or a dietician to tailor a plan that is individualised.
What can I do?
The person most responsible for what you eat is you. The best thing you can do is make the decision to look after your body and nurture it to better health. Avoid all the latest ‘fad’ diets as they generally don’t take into account the specific needs of those with chronic, inflammatory health issues.
The word ‘diet’ is sometimes taken to mean that you are restricted to eating certain foods or at certain times. That approach is often unsustainable and can add to our stress levels. The term really refers to anything and everything that you eat. Choosing a balanced diet simply means including all the food groups and watching your portion size.
Portion size is another area where we have direct control. In Australia, we tend to consume far more per meal than we actually need. A simple way to control this is to cut back on your portion size, wait for an hour or so, then if you still feel hungry eat a little more. The chances are that you’ll find you don’t really need that ‘top-up’.
Many people have become so out of tune with their bodies that they mistake thirst for hunger. If you do feel a little peckish, stop and consider when you last had a drink. If it has been more than a few hours, drink some water or at least something that doesn’t contain caffeine, excess sugar or alcohol.
If you want some help to get your diet on track, talk to your GP. They can make a number of suggestions that are easily achievable. A dietician is another great person to have on your healthcare team. They can look at your individual needs and help you plan a menu that is both tasty and nutritious.
How does stress affect arthritis?
Stress and pain often go hand in hand. People with arthritis often have a background level of pain that is constantly just ‘there’. We get so used to it that we hardly notice it as we go about our day. If something happens that causes us stress our bodies start to tense up.
A certain amount of stress in our lives is normal and even considered healthy as stress can also be positive. Where it becomes a problem is when the stress factors remain unresolved and the tension in our bodies begin to build up.
Even for normally healthy people, stress can reduce appetite, tighten muscles, constrict breathing and make it hard to think clearly. The paradox for people with arthritis is that the condition itself causes many forms of stress which then leads to worsening of symptoms.
What are the consequences of not dealing with stress?
Ongoing stress can often lead to varying levels of depression and anxiety. We lose motivation and become increasingly detached from our emotions and actions. For people with chronic illness this could mean we lose the energy to exercise regularly or care much about our diets, triggering a downward spiral in which our immune system can be put under immense strain.
If our sleep patterns become affected this also contributes to our overall lack of energy. When we are so tired and sore that we can’t think clearly we also run the risk of forgetting things like keeping our appointments or taking our medication regularly.
What can I do to relieve my stress?
There are many things you can do to reduce stress or improve your ability to handle it. Simply finding a sympathetic ear can sometimes be all you need. Before you pour your heart out to everyone around you, stop and consider the people who have been most supportive of you in the past. Look for the people that are good listeners and actually pay attention to your needs and concerns. You don’t always need their advice, sometimes all it takes is for them to spend time with you.
Conversely, be aware of the people that sap your energy or who constantly tell you what they think you should do without taking your feelings into account.
Your GP or mental healthcare provider can be invaluable in this respect. They can help you to uncover the true causes of your stress and give you advice and tools to help you cope more effectively.
Joining a support group is another way you can take control of your life. The intense thoughts and emotions that come with dealing with chronic pain can be difficult to describe. Talking to others who have had similar experiences can be a huge relief and go a long way towards reducing your sense of alienation. Other members can also answer the questions that doctors can’t, such as ‘How do I explain this to my family?’ or ‘What does it feel like to be on this medication?’
Indulging in a little pampering is a simple way to reduce short term stress. Have a full body massage, curl up with a good book, meet a friend at a warm water pool or public spa or simply burn some aromatherapy oil at home. If these don’t take your fancy, find another activity or hobby that takes little effort, helps you to relax and can you can do on a regular basis.
A practice that is gaining in popularity due to its effectiveness is that of ‘mindfulness’. Many mental healthcare providers us mindfulness as part of their treatment plans but it is also something that you can discover for yourself.
The concept is simply about actively choosing to ‘be’ in the moment. Observe your thoughts and moods but refrain from judging them. Be kind to yourself and treat yourself with compassion. A key element of mindfulness in relation to dealing with chronic conditions is to learn to accept that your life has changed direction and that new hope and opportunities are possible for you.
Where can I find more help?
Your GP can help you find many ways to manage your arthritis and improve your overall health and wellbeing. They can create a Chronic Disease Management Plan (CDMP) for you that could include visits to other providers in a Team Care Arrangement (TCA) or they may help you set your own health goals and work with you to achieve them.
Arthritis Australia and the arthritis association in your state/territory are excellent sources of information and advice. They have fact sheets that you can ask for or download, phone support services, research information, self-help classes and lists of support groups near you.
You can also search online for support groups and directories of health professionals.