Lowered “Swimpectations” and the Benefits of Exercise

Marianna is standing in the shallow end of an outdoor swimming pool.I did NOT feel like going for my swim. I went anyway, but I had lowered "swimpectations."

I agreed with myself that I would only do half my swim workout, then I could get out and go home to a hot shower. Showers are unavailable post-swim; just one of the many COVID-19 prevention concessions that have been implemented at the pool.

As is typically the case, thanks to the joint-lubricating magic of water, I exceeded my "swimpectations." I ended up swimming my regular distance. The best part? I felt better afterwards! I was emotionally, mentally and physically refreshed.

I Don't Want to...

About those "I-don't-want-to-___________" thoughts. I know better. I even wrote about it on Tips for When You Don't Want to Exercise. The more I think about not wanting to do something, the more disgruntled I become. It's as if I fertilize those negative "I don't want to" thoughts. They grow into something bigger and nastier than if I just got on with things.

By the way, this applies to so many other things that are a part of daily life. The dishes, cooking, maintaining your home, doing your taxes. You may not want to, but the more you reinforce that, the bigger and more difficult it becomes to stay on top of things. With rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the challenge is even greater.

Keep in mind that when "I don't want to..." is coupled with the perfection deception, it can stall your best intentions. If RA applies the brakes, the need for perfection adds air brakes; it may just be too much stopping-power.

But it Hurts to Move...

Pain from wonky RA joints is a daily thing. I know that a swim, as difficult as it is at times, puts me in a better frame of mind and often, body. When I emerge from those cool, refreshing waters, I'm a little, if not a lot, more agile.

Over the four plus decades of living with RA, I've found that the less I move, the worse I feel. There are times when my joints are snarling like a fear-aggressive dog that wants to be left alone. This is when softness, tenderness and time helps to assuage the pain.

Gentle movement helps to transport oxygen from the tips of your toes and the end of your nose. Slow, deep breaths, coupled with stress techniques can untangle the knotted ball of fear and alter the type of chemicals that course through your body. For example, cortisol, the stress hormone, is linked to the inflammatory response. People with RA do not need more inflammation; be motivated to do what you can to slow down this response. Every little bit helps, even when you don't think it is. (I'm making a note to write a blog post about that last phrase.)

The Journal of Aging discusses the benefits of exercise in rheumatoid arthritis:

"The reported benefits of properly designed physical exercise programs include improved cardiorespiratory fitness and cardiovascular health, increased muscle mass, reduced adiposity (including attenuated trunk fat), improved strength, and physical functioning, all achieved without exacerbation of disease activity or joint damage. Furthermore, when comparing the effectiveness of high and low intensity exercise training in stable RA, it is found that the former was more effective in increasing aerobic capacity, muscle strength, joint mobility, and physical function with no detrimental effect on disease activity in patients with controlled and active RA."

The article goes on to dispel the belief that exercise causes further damage to already destroyed joints. It also points out that exercise can help with fatigue. I know that when I swim, do EssentricsQigong, and/or my Operation Wherever walks (OND, OWR, OT, OL), I sleep better. When I have a sound sleep, I have more energy throughout the day.

There are times when I feel lazy and simply don't want to get moving. That's when lowered expectations help.

I talk myself into it:

  • Just do 5 minutes.
  • Do half my workout.
  • A short block walk is better than nothing.
  • What am I moving towards? Lowered swimpectations/expectations provide momentum. Then habit often takes over and I do more than I anticipated.

Of course, I listen to my body. I take a truthful look at what I need and when. Am I feeling lazy, lacking motivation, or do I need to rest for a few hours, a day, or longer?  The first hour or two in the morning is not always my best time to shake my booty, or anything else, for that matter! It's too stimulating to exercise late in the day. Finding my sweet spot is key. Being flexible in mind, as well as body, is helpful. Be a living lab.

Find the Joy in Movement

RA restricts movement. When movement hurts, why do it? The tendency is to curl up on the couch and nurse your hurts, which are not only physical, but emotional and mental as well. There's a time and place for hunkering down and licking your wounds, so to speak. There is also a time to make small changes to get you moving in the right direction.

Movement can open the door to joy, which opens the door to more. When you feel joyful, the chemical cascade is very different. Endorphins are released during exercise, or as Harvard Health calls it, "muscular meditation."

They are called feel-good neurotransmitters for a reason. You may not feel 100% good/well - you have RA, after all - but often you do feel better. A little bit of movement can be the thread that leads you closer to feeling like you did before RA hijacked your body.

What's more, endorphins can help with pain control. RA, I'm talking to you!

From Exercise and Depression on WebMD:

"Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as 'euphoric.' That feeling, known as a 'runner's high,' can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.

Endorphins act as analgesics, which means they diminish the perception of pain. They also act as sedatives. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neuron receptors endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. However, unlike with morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body's endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence."

Make a Choice

I am receptive to eking out joy, in whatever amount, when I swim, walk or do some of the other movement practices I've onboarded. I've also learned to stand up to the bully that is my ego. It wants to compare me to my previous performances when RA didn't reshape my body, or to more able-bodied people.

For example, as a former swimming instructor and competitive swimmer, I know how to do the strokes properly. Joint deformation and surgeries created limitations; I am no longer able to swim "perfectly," but I do the best I can. Do I like it? No. But that is good enough. It has to be. What choice do I have? I reframe what it means to be a swimmer. I shove my ego out of the way and allow the buoyancy of the water to magnetize the joy of movement in me, even if it means less-than-ideal movement.

I encourage you to test-drive the great variety of exercise/movement programs to find one or several that bring joy to you. Dismantle the road blocks that are in your way. Do it for the health of it, one step/stroke/breath/thought at a time!

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