I don’t think I understood the healing, calming powers of nature until I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 29.
During the first few years of my diagnosis, which were fraught with chronic pain and constant change, I found comfort in the great outdoors. After a particularly disheartening doctor’s appointment or a draining treatment, I would make my way to the nearest park. The movement would help ease some of the pain and allow me to focus on what I was feeling emotionally rather than physically. I’d eventually settle into a bench and stare off into the water, processing all the difficult changes in my life.
Ultimately, this was part of my extensive healing process. Not healing in the sense of curing my rheumatoid arthritis, but rather addressing the emotional wounds that come from being diagnosed with a debilitating, incurable chronic disease.
Spending time in nature has become a significantly important tool for getting by with a chronic illness. It has helped calm the storm that rages inside my mind. But over the past few years, I’ve graduated from sitting in the park to hiking through the mountains of British Columbia, my hometown. Now, my time in nature heals my soul and my body.
You might be thinking: How does someone with rheumatoid arthritis, a disease known to cause joint inflammation and pain, manage to hike their way through rocky terrains? It has taken some trial and error, but I’ve managed to find ways to make hiking work with my chronic illness — and even ease some of the pain that comes with it.
After Being Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hiking Was an Afterthought
My interest in hiking didn’t come on suddenly. At least, not completely. Unfortunately, the pain I felt from my yet-to-be-diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis made any physical activity difficult. Walking up a flight of stairs would put me out of breath. Walking around the block would drain me of energy. I could barely make my way around the grocery store before my diagnosis (and for a time after it).
I knew hiking wasn’t meant to be the easiest activity, as many people experience discomfort after a hike. Because of the pain, swelling, and fatigue that cascaded over me after a walk around the block, I just assumed hiking was something I’d never be able to do.
I Took Control of My Health, and Made My Way Up the Mountain
But then I decided to fight back against my RA; to take back some aspects of my life, including movement.
I put more effort into bettering my overall health. I started exercising regularly, alternating between cardio and strength training. I also started using a health tracker to better understand how rheumatoid arthritis impacted my overall health, gaining insight into things like physical limitations, sleep needs, and the toll stress takes on my body.
My body transformed, and I was in the best shape of my life. Because of that, I started to be able to do more with less pain, including hiking. I started small, focusing on shorter, flatter trails, and gradually worked my way up to more strenuous terrain. Now hiking has become part of my physical — and mental — exercise routine.
But more importantly, hiking has become a victory — albeit, a small one — over rheumatoid arthritis. When I go for a hike, I am proving to myself and others that I will not let rheumatoid arthritis win; that with a few adaptations I can still live and enjoy life.
Tips For Hiking with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Mind you, I am not doing 14-hour hikes while camping on a mountain. I am doing the hikes I can do (after a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed) and making the most out of it rather than missing out completely. Because even though I’ve come a long way in being physically active with rheumatoid arthritis, I can’t completely eliminate all the discomfort that comes with it. But, with time, I have learned how to cope with the aches and overcome the pain.
Here are some things I do to make hiking easier while living with rheumatoid arthritis:
I sound like a broken record but exercising regularly has built up my endurance and strength, making it easier to handle longer, more difficult hikes.
Eat well and stretch
Before leaving for a hike, I drink plenty of water and eat a healthy breakfast to give me the energy to get through the day. I also take an anti-inflammatory medication and supplements in order to get ahead of any pain that may arise during the hike.
Finally, I make sure to stretch because, as with any exercise, it helps loosen my joints and muscles for the long road ahead.
Do your research
Get an idea of what the hike is like before you head out. Ask others about the trail, look at photos, and read about its difficulty to see if your body can tolerate it. It also helps to look for trails that take you past ponds, lakes, or rivers. I personally like knowing there is a place where I can take off my shoes and dunk my feet into the water. Not only is it refreshing, but the cold can help relieve inflammation.
Remember, hiking is meant to be enjoyable. Don’t try to take on a trail that you aren’t prepared for or not feeling up to that day.
Know your limits
As with any physical activity and rheumatoid arthritis, it’s important to know your limits. Part of that comes from prepping beforehand, but also from pacing yourself and listening to your body during the activity. Don’t hesitate to take rests along the way, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Additionally, make sure to plan your hike accordingly. I make a point not to hike (or do any strenuous activity) the day before an important obligation. When I want to enjoy a longer, more strenuous hike, I’ll make sure I don’t have much going on for the next day or two. I know I will need to take time to recover from the exertion.
I can’t carry anything heavy for a long period of time, so I must be selective with what I bring on a hike. I also try to determine what needs to come with me on the hike and what can stay in the car for afterward. For example, I tend to leave topical creams, and ice packs in a cooler in the car so they are available to reduce any post-hike pain that I may be feeling.
And if you’re hiking with others — it’s always a good idea not to hike alone — don’t be afraid to ask someone else if they can lighten your load.
Speaking of bags, I prefer to wear a pack around my waist versus a backpack due to my achy shoulders and neck. Having a backpack tends to propel us forward, so when dealing with joint pain, especially in the knees, this will only add more load and more pain.
Always wear proper shoes with good traction and support to avoid any added pressure on the joints and muscles. Also, wear lighter, loose clothing for days when it’s a little warmer. I prefer to wear layers and shed or add as needed.
Bring walking support
I use Nordic walking poles to take the load off my knees and hips, and help with my balance on uneven terrain. I was given a set of Nordic walking poles from Urban Poling, a Canadian-based company created by an occupational therapist and gerontologist. Their handles are even comfortable when dealing with wrist pain from arthritis. They are also great if I need to hoist myself up anywhere and don’t have anything to hold onto.
Think about your movement
Over time (and with the help of some experts), I have learned how to adapt to the terrain to make certain movements more comfortable on my body. For example, a physiotherapist taught me to zigzag down a hill instead of going straight, as this helps alleviate the impact on your knees. A kinesiologist once told me that I should sometimes vary the direction I walk in to help use and strengthen different muscles. Instead of always walking facing forward, I should move sideways or backward (if terrain permits) for short periods, which can make the hike an even better workout.
Hiking isn’t about burning calories or building strength, though it does both. It’s about moving your body, having fun, and taking in the sights. (That reminds me, bring a camera to take photos of the scenes and your victories.)
If you can remember that, you won’t be tempted to push yourself beyond your capacity.
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