In a time when we’re constantly bombarded with images of “perfect” celebrity bodies and a steady stream of fad diets, weight and body image are stressful subjects that can provoke strong emotion and sharp debate. These days, it’s fair to say that most Americans are not entirely happy with their bodies — it’s certainly not a feeling that’s exclusive to the arthritis community.
Chronic illness, however, complicates things. At the onset of the majority of chronic illnesses — arthritis included — it’s normal to either gain or lose weight. With some illnesses, weight fluctuation is one of the symptoms; with others, it is part of the side effects of medication and/or changes to diet and lifestyle. For many, maintaining a healthy, stable weight is an ongoing battle, and it can have a profound impact on your physical problems and your emotional struggles.
You may feel:
— Like you have no control over your body.
— Like the small changes you could make to your diet or exercise routine would not make a difference.
— Like your body continues to betray you.
Here’s the thing: None of those statements are true.
No one can control everything about their body, but you can start with small changes and still make improvements. And everyone feels like their body betrays them at some point in their life. I don’t have any quick fixes for dealing with these emotional issues. I’ve tried many times in the past to get myself to a healthier weight, and the problem has always returned. When arthritis was added to my list of concerns, I was ready to try again.
I’d like to share some suggestions I can make based on my own experiences with my weight. Though I have to be honest — my struggles have always been with gaining weight, not losing it. If you’re one of the people whose chronic illness has caused you to lose weight, these ideas may not work for you. (Though I do want to say that I’m not someone who thinks you have it easier. Struggles are struggles. And yours are valid.)
But if you’ve gained weight with your illness, I can absolutely commiserate. I gained 25 pounds at the onset of my arthritis. And I recently started the path to try to lose weight. Here are the areas I focused on that helped me.
Tracking What You Eat
Keeping track of what you eat helps you be more aware of what you’re putting in your body. Knowing where you’re starting helps you make small changes that can become more permanent habits. Also, many people with arthritis have found that certain foods can trigger flare ups — tracking what you eat helps identify foods to avoid. When I was ready to start making changes to my diet I joined Weight Watchers. This is just one option that might help you change your habits. As a bonus, their app is really easy to use for tracking what you eat.
I like Weight Watchers because their point system takes into account not only calories, but also content (sugar, salt, etc). I find this especially helpful because it can be flexible based on your lifestyle and where you want to make changes. It’s important to find what works for you. (I do want to mention, if you’re someone who has lost weight and needs to gain, this is something that Weight Watchers might be able to help with as well. Their point system calculates how many points you need based on telling it if you want to gain, maintain, or lose weight.)
Make Sure You’re Properly Hydrated
A lot of people go out of their way to make sure they’re drinking enough. There is the general rule of drinking eight glasses of water a day. That’s what I was doing. However, the truth is this doesn’t take into account your size or activity level. I recently started using a very cute app called Plant Nanny, which helps track your hydration. You provide it with your weight and your activity level (a general level: sedentary, regular, active), and then it lets you know how much you should be drinking a day. It helped me realize I was not drinking enough. It’s interesting how often your body thinks thirst is hunger. Just this small change helped me so much! As a bonus, a well hydrated body is generally a healthier body.
Start slow if that’s what you need; I started out just walking. I got a Garmin Vivosmart HR to monitor my steps and heart rate. If you don’t want to track your heart rate, there are plenty of great alternatives that are more affordable. At first I just kept my normal routine to determine a starting point. I work from home, and I was shocked at how sedentary I had become! Slowly, I began to build up the number of steps I took each day. As I began to increase my walking distance, I was so pleased with the progress. Not only did I start losing weight, but I started feeling stronger. Tracking my heart rate helped me see the improvements in my cardiovascular health too. The exercise also helped decrease the really bad days. Walking is a gentle way to slowly build up your muscles and stamina. I’m not yet up to the 10,000 steps a day that’s recommended. And when I’m having a bad day, I don’t walk as much. With arthritis, it’s important to find something that won’t hurt you and is flexible to adjust as needed.
Within my chronic pain support group, we’ve discussed weight several times, especially as I began my journey. Accountability came up often, as many thought they would just cheat if they were to try a diet. I’m lucky that I was ready for the change and committed to trying to build healthier habits. But I can understand that some people aren’t. In the past, when I’ve tried to make these kinds of changes to meet other people’s expectations, they didn’t stick. This is why accountability is such a good thing. When it comes to accountability, Weight Watchers makes it easy with two options: online tracking or group meetings. I prefer to do the online-only program. I’m not keen on the idea of having to weigh myself in front of other people. But for some people this is the accountability that helps them make changes. This could also be as simple as having a weight loss buddy you work with. Find a system that works for you.
Whatever situation you’re in with regards to your weight, and whatever path you choose, I hope you know that you’re not alone in your struggles. I started trying to lose weight at the end of May. I’m both surprised and delighted to share that I’ve lost 30 pounds so far. Physically, I’m still not doing any overly intense exercise, though I have started incorporating yoga along with the walking. But the small changes I’ve made have helped me begin to feel more like myself again. And as an added bonus, it’s helped me feel like I do have some small amount of control in my life. The hardest part was getting started and having the patience to allow the changes to have an effect before giving up.