“My Rheumatoid Arthritis Inspired Me To Lose 65 Pounds And Become A Personal Trainer”

·6 min read
Photo credit: ASHLEY NICOLE
Photo credit: ASHLEY NICOLE

My name is Ashley Nicole and I’m a 37-year-old living in Dallas, Texas. I’m the owner of RA Warrior Fitness, an online personal training program that empowers people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other physical limitations to live a healthy lifestyle through faith, food, and fitness.

In college, my hands started hurting. I knew what rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was because both my mom and my grandmother have it, but since they were diagnosed later in life and I was so young, I really never let myself think that was the cause of my pain. Before long, it got so bad that brushing my teeth, combing my hair, and buttoning my shirt became difficult and excruciating. At the time, I did lots of repetitive folding at my retail job and I also played the saxophone, so I told myself overusing my hands was the root of the problem.

Then one day, I couldn’t brush the pain off anymore. I woke up and couldn't move—everything hurt. The pain extended from my hands to my entire body. A friend took me to urgent care. They just told me to take an Aleve and I’d be fine. I knew it was something more than that, but I was in denial because I had seen firsthand how much pain RA caused my mom and Granny. My mom’s RA was triggered after she had her third child—my little brother—when I was about 12. She had the exact same attack as me: one day she woke up and couldn’t move. It was scary as a kid to see my mom that debilitated and in so much pain, and even more terrifying to think I could be heading down the same path.

Living in denial

I didn’t want to think of severe pain being in my future, so of course, I was willing to believe the urgent care doctor. It was all the reason I needed to keep denying that my symptoms could be due to RA. So, for the next six years, I avoided getting diagnosed.

At the same time, my weight steadily went up. I had gained 15 pounds in college from eating dining hall food like ramen noodles and personal pan pizzas. I continued those eating habits after graduation, which caused me to gain another 60 pounds. I also didn’t really exercise. The few times I tried working out with a friend, the moves he showed me hurt my hands and wrists, so I gave up.

Now I know those years of being in denial, being sedentary, and putting on weight made my joint pain even worse.

A diagnosis—and a motivation to change

Six years after my first big flare-up, I finally saw a rheumatologist and got an RA diagnosis. Since I had put off seeking help for so long, I had severe joint damage in my wrists. The damage couldn’t be reversed, but we treated it with medication to stop it from progressing. In hindsight, I wish I had addressed my condition sooner.

Photo credit: Ashley Nicole
Photo credit: Ashley Nicole

Around the same time, I also started making lifestyle changes that could help further reduce my joint pain. For the first time, I educated myself on clean eating. Before then, I had no idea there was sugar in margaritas—I would go to weekly happy hours, order a giant cocktail, and wonder why I was gaining weight. I’ve found that a Mediterranean-style diet—rich in things like vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats—works well for me. I still have bread and a glass of red wine sometimes but in moderation. Not only has this helped me lose weight, but it’s also reduced my joint inflammation.

I also started working out at fitness studios. Before each class, I would have to go up to the trainer and explain that I have RA and can’t do certain things on my hands like push-ups and burpees. Then while the whole class was doing the same move in unison I would have to remind the trainer, “I can't do that. I need a modification!” It was very frustrating, and my way of executing moves didn’t look like everyone else because I had to modify so much. It made me feel self-conscious and alone.

A bright idea...deferred

To ease my negative feelings, I started taking fitness classes with another friend who had RA, and we called ourselves the RA Warriors. It felt so good to have someone who understood me and wasn’t afraid to be different, too. In the middle of one class, an idea popped into my head: What if I could become a trainer to help people who have RA and other physical challenges, and design programs that were tailored to our abilities?

But someone in my life then who was really negative said to me, “How are you going to be a trainer if you can’t even demo basic moves like pushups?” That really popped my bubble, and I stayed frozen by my self-doubt for about eight years. After that, something inside me shifted, and I decided not to let my own negative self-talk get in the way of my dreams. I told myself: you are enough, and went on to get my personal training certification—and I also got that negative person out of my life.

The confidence to go for it

Over those eight years, I also lost 65 pounds! I wasn’t going to let RA hold me back from being healthy, strong, and fit. I had always wanted to do burpees and couldn’t because of my wrist damage. I realized that if I make a fist, I can do burpees just fine–and now I do them for fun, just because I can. Sure, sometimes I still wish that I didn’t have to modify moves, but at least I'm able to do what I can do. That attitude is ultimately what helped me decide to just go for it with launching my training business.

Photo credit: Ashley Nicole
Photo credit: Ashley Nicole

In March of 2020, I started RA Warrior Fitness as a virtual fitness company, which worked out well because COVID closed down gyms soon after anyway. My goal was to provide a low-impact workout program with lots of modifications for people with RA or other physical limitations, thinking a few people would sign up. Right from the launch, 60 people joined! The feedback I’ve gotten from clients is that they really appreciate that I understand firsthand what they’re going through. It makes me so thrilled to help people who thought they couldn’t reach their fitness goals because of a health challenge.

And you know what? If a client has the ability to do push-ups and needs a demo, I can send them a video of the correct form. I still wish I could show them myself, but there’s always a work-around. My motto for myself and my clients is “no excuses”—your workout might not look like everyone else’s, but together, we can figure out a way. And I always tell my clients the same thing I tell myself: you are enough.

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