You’ve heard it many times: Regular exercise is a research-proven way to ease joint pain and stiffness, increase muscle strength and improve mobility. However, it’s easier said than done—and Jillian Michaels has a hunch about what’s stopping you.
In fact, the 38-year-old fitness phenom has built a career on the premise that most of us have trouble sticking with exercise. And when you’re struggling with symptoms like joint pain and fatigue, it’s even more challenging. But the no-nonsense trainer won’t accept any excuse. “I firmly believe there’s an exercise regimen that’s perfect for every age, ability and fitness level,” says Jillian, who motivates contestants to lose hundreds of pounds on the hit show The Biggest Loser. “One of the biggest motivations for exercising with arthritis is feeling better and being able to enjoy the activities you love. If you truly form an emotional attachment to the outcome, you will succeed.”
To help inspire you, we asked Jillian how to overcome mental roadblocks to fitness. Her stay-tough tips may just give you a leg up on exercise!
If you’re thinking…
You’re in good company: A study in Arthritis Care & Research found that lack of motivation, lack of enjoyment and the anticipation of pain were common reasons why folks with arthritis avoided exercise.
- Identify your “why.” This is where it all begins, says Jillian. “The biggest mistake people make is to look outside themselves for inspiration,” she says. “Here’s the key to staying motivated: If you have a why to live for, you can tolerate the how. Identify all the reasons you want to be motivated in the first place and let that drive you toward success. Maybe your motivation is to walk your daughter down the aisle at her wedding or to be more active with your children or grandchildren.”
- Keep your eyes on the prize—literally! Visual cues remind you to focus on the positive—the “why” that will give you inspiration. “Make a list or get pictures of the things you want and tape your goals to the refrigerator, your car’s dashboard—any place that can serve as a daily reminder,” recommends Jillian. Another tip: Before your workout, take a few minutes to close your eyes, breathe deeply and imagine yourself feeling confident and completing the activity.
Jillian knows how you feel. She candidly admits that as a teen she tipped the scales at 175 pounds. Around that time, her mom enrolled her in karate classes, and she credits martial arts with helping her to gain confidence, embrace exercise and lose 60 pounds.
Her easy tips for building your own confidence:
- Shrink your target. Despite her take-no-prisoners persona on TV, Jillian recognizes that in real life, the key is to succeed at small goals that will spur you to set more. For example, start by walking one time around your house every day. After a week, walk to the end of your street. When that feels comfortable, start tackling whole blocks.
- Let H2O do the work. “Water workouts are a great way to exercise without straining your joints,” says Jillian. The water’s buoyancy makes you feel lighter. “Plus, water provides resistance to help build muscle strength.” You don’t have to sign up for an aquasize class, either. Try hanging onto the side of the pool and kicking your legs, or standing in the shallow end and pushing your arms against the resistance.
This one doesn’t fly with Jillian either. “One of my personal training clients was a 90-year-old man with spinal stenosis who had never worked out before,” she notes. (Spinal stenosis causes a painful narrowing of the spinal column.) “People with arthritis who exercise regularly find their daily activities feel easier and their balance gets better.” Need proof? A Tufts University study of arthritis patients over 55 found that after four months of supervised strength training, joint pain decreased by an impressive 43%.
- Build muscle—but consult an expert first. Jillian’s client was wise enough to realize that he needed muscle strength to feel steady on his feet and a keen eye to make sure he was working out safely. Your best bet: Ask your doctor to recommend a physical therapist or other professional who can help you design a strength-training routine.
- Embrace your AARP status! All types of exercise classes—from weight training to yoga—are geared toward the 50+ crowd; look for them at your town’s community center or the YMCA. Another tip: Call your health plan and ask if you’re eligible for a free gym membership or fitness classes. (Many plans offer special benefits to seniors.)
Who has time to hit the gym for an hour? Not Jillian, who juggles TV appearances in between her entrepreneurial ventures, including her K-Swiss line of workout clothes and weight-loss empire. Not to mention a little thing called motherhood: Jillian became a mom twice in May when she and her partner, Heidi, adopted a 2-year-old girl from Haiti and Heidi gave birth to a son.
- Find a slot in your schedule. “I’ve always told my clients to put themselves first, but I’ve found that’s challenging to do when you’re a new parent,” laughs Jillian. “I’ve started scheduling my exercise around my kids’ naps. When they’re sleeping, I’ll grab a quick half hour of exercise and work out at home with an exercise video or cardio equipment.”
- Try bite-sized exercise. Can’t even find 30 minutes in your schedule? Break your workout into smaller parts. For example, if it’s a weight-lifting routine, divide it up by body part—say, your arms, legs, abs and back—and work one muscle group for 5 to 10 minutes a day (perhaps during TV commercials).
This often boils down to not using a tracking method. When researchers at Northwestern University used special devices to track the activity levels of more than 1,000 people with knee osteoarthritis, they discovered that only 13% of men and 8% of women met federal guidelines for weekly activity (at least 150 minutes, or about 20 minutes a day). Even more surprising: Many participants thought they had been doing vigorous activity!
- Rely on pen and paper. Keeping a daily food and fitness diary is an easy way to track your progress and spot shortfalls. “If you’re not watching what you eat and portion sizes, all the exercise in the world won’t make a difference,” notes Jillian. So: “Write down what you’re eating and how you’re feeling both physically and emotionally,” she says. “This can help you work through issues like emotional eating.”
- Let something else keep you honest! The cheapest gadget? A pedometer that measures how many daily steps you take (that’s what the Northwestern researchers used). If you can up the ante, Jillian suggests trying an electronic monitor that gauges physical activity and calories burned (she likes the BodyMedia FIT armband).
Photograph by Andrew Southam