In her early 20s, Clair Gardiner wouldn’t think twice about exercising for at least an hour each day, whether it was an at-home regimen of squats, lunges, and pushups or 5K- and 10K-race walks she liked to do.
“It really was just a part of my everyday life, something that I certainly took for granted,” says Gardiner, now 36.
But everything changed when she woke up one morning with crushing pain in her lower back. “It had been coming and going for some time, but was usually treatable,” she says. This time was different though. “The pain lasted longer than usual, and it was so severe.”
She went to a chiropractor who suspected psoriatic arthritis (PsA), a chronic inflammatory disease that causes symptoms like stiff and swollen joints, lower back pain, and fatigue. The diagnosis was confirmed by Gardiner’s primary care doctor.
“Psoriatic arthritis challenged me in many ways—it did then and it continues to do so now,” she says. “Some days, just getting out of bed is hard. I wake up and everything hurts—swollen fingers, inflamed heels, stiff shoulders—there isn't a way to predict how I'll feel."
In 2020, after years of inactivity and weight gain, Gardiner decided to hit “reset” on her health goals. “It took many failed attempts to actually get myself to a place mentally and physically where I was ready to move forward,” she says.
She enlisted the help of a nutritionist for advice on better food choices and joined a CrossFit gym with the goal of making exercise a regular part of her life again. Since then, she says the exercises have increased her range of motion and allow her to move more easily in her daily tasks.
Editors note: Be sure to talk with your health care provider before beginning any exercise program—especially if you have a chronic illness.
Sure, there are frustrating days when swelling and inflammation in her hands prevent her from lifting the recommended weight or doing a pull-up, but Gardiner modifies her workouts so she can keep up to the best of her ability without hurting herself. “I have learned that those are not failures, but stepping stones,” she says. Here’s what else she's learned about staying active when you have PsA.
1. Invest in a pair of training shoes
Wearing the right pair of sneakers is critical to giving joints the support they need during a workout. That’s especially true for people with PsA. “They need to be suited to your activity,” advises Gardiner, who invested in a pair of CrossFit-specific shoes with supportive cushioning once she decided to commit to the classes.
Since then, she's experienced less frequent inflammation in her heels, which “makes a massive difference in managing my pain levels,” she says. When shopping for new shoes, take the time to read product descriptions and reviews to see if the features will help the specifics of the activity you plan on doing. Or if you can, get fitted in-person so you could get customized advice.
2. Listen to your body
On your best days, you may be able to up your reps or increase your distance. But that doesn’t mean you should aim to do the same amount each day.
And if you’re new to exercise or starting a different type of workout, start slow and build gradually. “Learn where your boundaries are,” says Gardiner. “Do what you can and only a little bit more. If you suddenly double up your efforts, your body will retaliate.”
The journey can be longer for people with psoriatic arthritis, Gardiner says. “There are times when I sit out two weeks’ training due to a flare, but when it passes or eases up, I get back up and carry on.”
3. Build a support system
Whether it’s your close friend or an online community of virtual ones, having a cheerleader or two in your corner will help you stay motivated.
For Gardiner, her cheering section is led by her best friend of 24 years. “She’s always there to remind me to get up and go when I can—and rest when I can’t,” says Gardiner. “Having someone walk this path with you and hold you accountable makes a big difference.”
4. Enlist help from a pro
Granted, trainers and nutritionists may not be in everyone's budget. But, Gardiner says having someone to turn to for guidance, even just one session a month can make an impact that’s worth the investment.
“They can do things like correct your form, offer advice, and keep track of your progress,” she says. (Look for a coach who has experience with arthritis or PsA, if possible.) With CrossFit, no two days are alike. If there’s something in a workout Gardiner knows she’ll struggle with due to pain from her PsA, she works with the coach who leads the class to find modifications.
5. Take it slow—but not too slow
What might sound like the perfect rest day—spent lying on the couch watching movies, reading books, napping—is actually just the opposite for people with PsA, Gardiner says.
She knows if she spent even a single day like that, every joint in her body would retaliate and she’d likely be thrown into a flare. “Starting up again [after a break] can feel like starting all over again,” she explains.
Instead, her idea of a truly restful day includes getting up early, making breakfast, and starting household chores—but doing it all at a slower pace. She’ll allow herself an afternoon nap, then she and her 7-year-old daughter typically end the day with dinner and a movie.
6. Celebrate what your body can do
Despite the limitations that can come with having psoriatic arthritis, Gardiner says it’s important to remember that working out—in any form—is a celebration of what your body can do. “Every morning, when my toes touch the floor, I am grateful to still have that movement," she says. "It deserves to be celebrated, by moving and eating healthy foods that fuel your body, not hinder it.”
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