It’s no surprise that rheumatoid arthritis can put a damper on your energy. So what can you do when you’ve lost your get-up-and-go? Read on for simple steps to fend off fatigue.
For many people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), fun-zapping fatigue is worse than the pain. Yet research shows some easy lifestyle changes can help you enjoy more pep. Here, some real-life strategies from folks on the front line.
1. Real-life fatigue fighter: Gentle exercise
Do you avoid working out because RA is making you tired and achy? While it may seem counterintuitive, doing regular low-intensity aerobic exercise—such as walking and biking—actually ups your energy and reduces pain, reveals a recent analysis of 162 studies in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. For Ashley Boynes, a gentle work-out is immediately reinvigorating. “I walk, do yoga and recently started doing the elliptical. After these activities, my fatigue definitely lifts,” says the Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and blogger for the Arthritis Foundation, Mid-Atlantic Region.
Why it works: “Exercise dials down inflammation and reduces the number of swollen joints—and less pain reduces fatigue,” explains Bevra Hahn, MD, division chief of rheumatology and professor at UCLA.
Try it yourself: Start slowly, and let your joints be your guide, Dr. Hahn stresses. “Begin with about 5-10 minutes. If you feel pain for two or three days afterward, it’s too much for your body, so do less. Gradually increase the amount of exercise you do until you can reach 20-30 minutes three times per week or 15-20 minutes five days per week.”
2. Real-life fatigue fighter: Knowing your pain triggers
Many people with RA experience trouble sleeping due to pain. Unfortunately, not only does the tossing and turning make you groggy the next day, it worsens RA symptoms by not giving your joints a chance to rest. So what can you do? “I’ve learned which things I do during the day—like going on jet skis—that later can cause pain that makes me lose sleep, so I avoid them,” says Melanie Bonine, a vice president of a public relations firm in Minneapolis, MN.
Why it works: The body’s natural anti-inflammatory cortisol hormones are highest in the morning, so you may not necessarily feel pain while you’re actually doing certain activities. But by day’s end, when these hormones drop sharply, you’ll be more aware of the discomfort, explains Dr. Hahn.
Try it yourself: To pinpoint which activities may be prompting your sleep-disrupting achiness, try keeping a journal tracking everything you do during the day, then make adjustments to limit pain triggers as you become aware of them.
3. Real-life fatigue fighter: Ditching energy-zapping foods
When Jessica Gottlieb was diagnosed with RA and struggling with fatigue, one of the first steps she took was cleaning out her refrigerator and cupboards of junk food. “I started looking very closely at what I was eating and how it was affecting my energy levels. I cut out sugar and added lean proteins, whole grains and vegetables. I keep almonds in my car and try to eat a little protein throughout the day. Doing all this helps my energy stay a little higher,” says the Los Angeles-based freelance writer.
Why it works: Food can have a powerful impact on how much vigor you feel or how sapped you get. For instance, sugary foods and simple carbohydrates—such as white bread and potatoes—cause a sharp spike and then steep drop in blood sugar, which makes your energy crash, while protein and whole grains help keep blood sugar level, says Dr. Hahn. On the other hand, certain foods—such as cold-water fish (including salmon and tuna) and olive oil—can improve symptoms by reducing inflammation.
Try it yourself: “The ideal diet for an RA patient is one that is low in calories and red meat, has zero trans fats and is high in cold-water fish, fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Hahn says.
4. Real-life fatigue fighter: Stress-blasting LOLs
Next time you feel worn out, try watching a comedy, logging onto a funny website, calling a friend who always makes you chuckle or doing anything else that gets you to laugh. Enjoying hearty laughter is the surefire energy-boosting cure for Matt Iseman, a Los Angeles-based former medical doctor turned professional stand-up comedian with RA. “When my symptoms first came on, I was sleeping around 12 hours a day and still needing naps. I was exhausted all the time and depression was creeping in. I realized the only time I wasn’t tired was when I was doing my stand-up comedy. I was energized by the comedy.”
Why it works: Mirthful laughter releases a flood of tension-relieving and mood-lifting endorphins that help you overcome tiring stress and depression that frequently accompany RA. And while the jury is still out, a recent study in the journal Rheumatology suggests that laughing may reduce symptoms in people with severe RA by lowering levels of the inflammation-triggering protein interleukin-6.