You know that physical activity is an important part of your arthritis treatment plan. You want to take advantage of the good weather to get out and walk, but you just can’t seem to get moving. When it comes to health and fitness, your state of mind, or emotional conditioning, is as important as your physical conditioning. Yet aside from pro athletes, few people focus on the mental aspects of physical fitness, whether it’s overcoming anxiety related to arthritis pain or simply getting motivated to lace up your sneakers each day. Changing your mind-set can help you live a more active life and get your arthritis under control. So, before you exercise, get your mind ready.
That’s the finding from a series of focus group studies, where fear of pain (not pain itself) ranked as the No. 1 barrier preventing people with arthritis from exercising; other mental hurdles, like a lack of motivation and not enjoying exercise, also ranked high.
“Participants who exercised and those who didn’t both reported arthritis-related pain,” notes study author Sara Wilcox, PhD, professor in the department of exercise science at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. “Those who were active focused on how exercise increased their quality of life, while those who didn’t exercise often had trouble getting past fear and other emotions.”
So how do you get your mind and your body ready for exercise? Follow these three emotional conditioning tips:
- Be flexible. Wilcox found that people who adjusted their exercise routine to accommodate their arthritis were more likely to keep exercising than those who didn’t. “Eschew an all-or-nothing mentality,” says Judy Van Raalte, PhD, professor of sports psychology at Springfield College in Massachusetts. “If your knees hurt, resolve to walk more slowly. If you’re stiff in the morning, then exercise in the evenings. Or cut the length of your workout in half, if you’re really sore. Having a Plan B keeps you from giving up when things seem tough.”
- Focus on the benefits. In Wilcox’s study, people who exercised regularly did so because they believed it made them feel better, promoted weight loss and increased their ability to move. “Reminding yourself of how good exercise is for your health can motivate you to make the effort, even when you’re feeling tired, sore or nervous,” says Wilcox.
- Soothe yourself. Being anxious or afraid can amplify pain, which is why it’s important to get calm before you get moving, says Van Raalte. “Before you start exercising, spend several minutes breathing deeply while picturing yourself doing your chosen activity,” she says. She also advises practicing positive self-talk before and during exercise, saying or thinking phrases like “I can do this,” and “I feel pain, but doing this will help me feel less pain.”