My friend is a fitness addict – where some women are hooked on chocolate, wine, or bad choices in men, she acquires her high at the gym. Aerobics, yoga, swimming, kinetics, kickboxing – she’s done it all, and does it all at the crack of dawn. Before the days of old lady RA, I would wake in the morning and do a high energy workout that combined karate and dance moves to rev up my day; now, most of my days begin like an engine unable to turn over. My morning “workout” consists of me pulling my swollen body from the bed, maybe doing some light stretching to get the blood flowing, some light aerobics (walking or stepping) and gentle yoga – if the weather is agreeable, swimming is a great option. These are the good mornings – on the bad ones just getting out of bed is an ordeal.
It’s important to keep exercising with arthritis, to build bone strength and keep muscles strong; exercise also helps keep your mental acuity sharp and boosts the mood. My own rheumy expressed some concern, (and he does this with a characteristic wrinkling of his forehead which I now acknowledge as a look of disapproval), about the waning muscles in my hands and legs, the latter possibly leading to a potential problem with my knees. He suggested I do some strength training. I thought it was time to challenge myself, and so, I accepted an invitation to accompany my friend to the local gym in a “kinesis” class, a lively program that uses motion, resistance and weights to strengthen the core and lower body. I was emboldened and ready for anything – after all, I had been a dancer for many years, my core was already strong; I should be able to get through one kinesis class without a problem….or so I thought.
The fitness facility was huge, with three floors of studios, a swimming pool and several gym areas. We picked up our registration tags at the reception desk and made our way to the third floor. To our left was a huge space laden with an assortment of equipment – stationary bikes, treadmills, Stairmasters, rowing machines – to our right was a fitness area with mats, weights and giant exercise balls. Classes were in motion everywhere. The air was permeated with the sweat of willpower.
We located our group towards the back of the room. Mats were sporadically laid out on the floor; peculiar metallic equipment was attached to the wall. It looked menacing, like something out of a Terminator movie. I half expected them to come to life and snatch me up in their weights and rigging. Iron slabs dangled from pulleys affixed to metal supports. The instructor raced through the demonstration (it was only a thirty minute class after all, and we were to spend most of it being treated like recruits under a drill sergeant). The moves were more challenging than I anticipated; I pushed through as best I could feeling a bit like Popeye without his can of spinach, as I watched buff people with six packs burn through the exercises at top speed. Each time I began my set, the weights were adjusted to the lowest mass until my wiry arms could actually move them. After only ten minutes, I knew I was in way over my head. I could feel my energy declining; the old lady stirred in my knees and started giving me a hard time. I somehow managed to finish the class, feeling like a wilted lettuce leaf. My bouncy friend was invigorated, while I recognized a throbbing that told me I was going to regret this ambitious move the next morning.
I spent a couple of days recovering, returning to my usual routine of swimming and yoga. I was glad I attempted the class, but I think I’ll take some time to slowly build my strength before trying to be Arnold Schwarzenegger again– unless I can miraculously locate that legendary can of spinach.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.