From Disabled to Distinguished

I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was only twenty-seven. It’s a painful disorder that can affect the whole body, making it difficult to move around with ease. After many years of enduring the pain, I figured it might lessen if my movements decreased. I didn’t exercise (and I wasn’t eating healthy) and often sat for the majority of the day. By the time I was fifty, I was overweight, diabetic, and suffering from severe pain.

Since my job required a lot of travel, I was in and out of airports. The trouble was, I couldn’t walk very far without feeling exhausted, out of breath, and in more pain than I could stand. I started using a wheelchair to get to my airport gates, being pushed by an attendant.

Sometime between then and now, my wife (fiancé at the time), encouraged me to exercise to relieve the pain. I began working with a trainer who helped me get back on my feet and walking again. It started slow—I could only walk about half a mile. Over time, my strength came back, my endurance increased, and my pain decreased drastically.

I still experience days with some awful pain, but now I walk three miles every morning and have participated in multiple 5k races! Just last year I set a new record for myself, coming in at just under thirty-seven minutes.

If you’ve experienced or been diagnosed with a painful disorder like rheumatoid arthritis, here are a couple things you can do to avoid letting the pain control you.

Get moving

First, follow your doctor’s orders—I may be a doctor myself, but I’m not your doctor. Now, the pain may seem limiting, but it doesn’t have to dictate your life. In many cases, increasing your fitness can reverse the amount of discomfort from chronic pain. On the other hand, a lack of fitness may intensify the pain due to muscle atrophy. (As they say, “Use it or lose it.”) Make time to move around, no matter how slow you move or how short you can do it; as your body gets used to the increased movement, you’ll be able to increase your fitness level little by little. The movement will soon increase your mobility and decrease inflammation. Baby steps are okay! Working with a trainer is a great way to avoid injury.

Set aspirational goals

Once you’ve started moving, set reasonable, yet aspirational goals for yourself. Choose one or two ultimate goals, then break them down into smaller goals you can achieve along the way. The ultimate goal should be one that you cannot achieve easily or quickly; it needs to be a challenge. As you reach the smaller goals, there will be evident proof of your progress, which is extremely motivating.

For instance, my ultimate goal was to participate in a 5k race. I broke it down into smaller goals, such as walk for ten minutes, walk for ten minutes on a daily basis for two weeks, walk for twenty minutes two times a day, etc. My goals were small steps that led me to bigger goals and later my ultimate goal.

Whatever goals you set, be sure they are challenging enough but not discouragingly difficult; these are motivators to get you up in the morning with a willingness to increase your fitness level. Remember each goal you want to achieve and have already reached when the pain and stiffness tempts you to sit back down. Marking down your successes can work as a visual reminder, too. Celebrate every victory, big or small—because each one matters.

Change perceptions about yourself

When I was diagnosed, I began to consider myself disabled. And because I believed I was disabled, I began to act like it. I didn’t exercise because I didn’t believe I could (or that it would do much good). It wasn’t until I shifted my perspective that I started working out.

Consider what negative perceptions you might have about yourself. Question whether these perceptions are accurate or self-imposed. Either way, choose today to change how you view yourself and believe you have ability to control your life. Getting started is an extremely difficult step because it’s a reminder of what you once were but are not now; release the “should” and “shouldn’t” thoughts (“I should be able to walk thirty minutes easily; I shouldn’t be out of breath like this”) and begin thinking the “will” and “will not” thoughts (“I will be able to achieve my ambitions; I will not give up on myself”). A fresh perspective is a proven way to motivate you to do more than you’ve been doing because it enables you to believe you can.

Pain doesn’t have to dictate or control your life; there are many ways to keep it in check and manage it. Practice moving around more, set encouraging goals, and look at yourself in a new light. Then see how much you can do—I bet it’ll be more than you ever expected.