One of my toughest challenges as a young person living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is trying to participate in physical activities. Before RA, I never thought twice about exercising. I’d just do what everyone else would do. If anything, I used to complain about going for a run or doing push-ups because it felt like too much of a bother.
With rheumatoid arthritis, trying to participate in a physical activity is one of the areas where I feel like an outsider the most. I need adaptive equipment to use most machines at my gym. Since the joints in my hands swell with exercise, I have to wear compressive gloves most of the time. My feet and ankles are often strapped or I use an ankle brace. It’s incredibly hard not to look around and see other people my age exercising easily and not feel different.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it — it hurts badly to know what I can do physically is limited not by how hard I try or what work I put in, but by a condition beyond my control. Sometimes I’ll overhear someone complaining about exercising, and I feel so angry they can’t appreciate the gift I believe they have. Then I remember I would’ve done the same before RA, too.
Feeling like an outsider while trying to exercise really came to the fore for me when I told my trainer I’d come to his boot camp. He didn’t handle it well and basically told me I was too disabled to attend, but he’d try to make it more disability-friendly. Right there was proof to me I was different, and that my difference was not OK to the point where I was excluded. I got upset. I cried. Then I handled it like an adult — I talked to my trainer openly and honestly about what it feels like to be excluded when you have a disability. Fortunately he understood where I was coming from, and I was invited to next boot camp.
While it was nerve-racking to turn up to a group exercise situation, it went well. I managed what I could and tried to adapt what I couldn’t do so I was still participating. A couple of months later, there are still moments during boot camp where I feel like an outsider, like when others sprint and I can only walk, or where I need help just to get my gloves off. However, exercising in a group has also shown me I’m not the only young person struggling with a physical or mental health condition. There’s something amazing about suddenly realizing another person is walking alongside you because they’ve had a rough day, too, or talking to another person who is fighting a battle of their own.
What I’ve learned is that the comparisons don’t work. Every person is on their own path. While mine might include more adaptive equipment or a different way of exercising, those tools allow me to be included in physical activities. And really, if those adaptions are what allow me to be included, then they don’t ever truly make me an outsider, do they?
For anyone else who feels like an outsider when it comes to physical activity participation, here’s what I’ve learned that might help you:
- Making comparisons between yourself and other people can be detrimental. Focus on your strengths and goals, and build on these instead.
- Keep goals practical/functional. Having goals based on increasing weights and repetitions tends to lead to disappointment for me. Making goals around things that can increase quality of life can lead to a real sense of achievement. For example, one of my goals was to be able to shower while standing up.
- Recognize that many people face challenges when it comes to exercise, whether physical, mental or financial. You are not alone in that.
- Embrace adaptations, whether it be using adaptive equipment or changing how you try something.This will most allow for inclusion in physical activity.
- Be prepared to provide some information to others about your condition and what you can and cannot do. This is particularly important in a group exercise setting to help ensure you can participate safely.
- Accept help if it allows you to be included. I still struggle with this at times, but letting another person assist is OK, and sometimes it’s the only way to manage with a disability.
This is what I wish someone had told me when I most felt like an outsider, and it might help others, too: “I don’t see you as any different than anyone else. It’s OK you can’t do what everyone else can. What matters is doing what you can.”