By Julie Eller – Live Yes! With Arthritis Podcast Co-Host
In the latest episode of the Live Yes! With Arthritis Podcast, we talk with Cedric Bryant, PhD, president and chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), about how to find the right fit for your fitness. We talk about how to set small goals that can accomplish big dreams.
One year ago this month, I was able to complete a momentous bike ride down the California Coast: 525 miles to cure arthritis. The ride took place over eight long days of pedaling, eight long nights of camping (in a tent!), and eight long days of reflecting on how lucky I am that my body was capable of pedaling me from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
I first learned about the California Coast Classic during an Arthritis Foundation event when I got to see a video showcasing the stories of the riders, and the views along the coast took my breath away. At the time, I was coming out of a five-month flare, the first flare I had ever had as a working professional. Those five months of extreme pain, brain fog and limited mobility made the mission of the Arthritis Foundation and the importance of the work I get to do in my job more tangible to me than ever. But they also challenged my resilience and made me question whether my body would be able to support my big dreams — and even some of my little ones.
I thought to myself that if I could get my arthritis under control, maybe I could pedal down U.S. Highway 1. Maybe my joints and I could do that together.
And after a while, my rheumatologist and I were able to calm my symptoms and control my arthritis. My doctor told me that my stress levels, coupled with inconsistent exercise, were some of the reasons my flare took such a toll on me. She told me that no amount of medicine would be able to control my disease without some lifestyle changes. She encouraged me to find a low–impact exercise to get my body moving, reminded me that I am in control of my disease and helped me mitigate some of the stresses of being a working professional.
Little did she know that encouraging me to find 15 minutes of low–impact exercise a day would turn into my registration for a 525-mile bike ride down the California Coast.
There were a few challenges with my registration: 1) I didn’t own a bicycle; 2) I had never camped before and didn’t have any of the right gear; and 3) I had never fundraised at the level required for my participation: $3,500. The challenges felt rather insurmountable, but I had just conquered a flare that had felt similarly daunting; I knew I would find a way to do it as long as I took it slow.
So, my training began. It started with short rides, pedaling through the length of a song on the stationary bike at the gym in my office building. A few months later, I got my bicycle and took my first outdoor ride through the streets of Washington, DC. I rode from my apartment down past the White House to the Washington Monument and back.
Even though it was only five miles, it was a tough ride. I didn’t know how scared I would feel pedaling down the street, between the drivers and pedestrians of the city I call home. I felt so in tune with my senses during that ride — hearing my heartbeat pounding in my ears, the way the wind blurred my vision as I rode down 15th Street, and especially the ways my knees felt getting me uphill on my way home. When I returned, I was filled with regret: What was I thinking signing up for this crazy bike ride? Clearly, I was not cut out for this!
But a few days later, I got back on my bike and did the ride again — same route, same bike, same rider. The only thing that had changed was that I knew what to expect on my ride; I knew that the ride was manageable, and that no matter what, I could make it home.
During that ride, I tried conquering the fear of riding like I was conquer my morning stiffness. I know the exact stretches, icing, heating and Tylenol combination I need to ease my joints into the day. During this second ride, I knew to find the bike lanes that would make my ride safe from city traffic, to wear sunglasses to protect my eyes from the wind and to shift my gears to make it easier on my knees to go uphill.
After months of riding and learning, and riding some more, I was able to increase the length of my rides from five miles to 10, then to 20 and 30. I did so in small chunks that gave me space to learn and grow. It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t something accomplished without challenge. But in the end, my joints, which have experienced nearly two decades’ worth of pain and “I wish I could but I can’t because of my arthritis,” got to pedal their way down the California Coast.
During the latest episode of our Live Yes! With Arthritis Podcast, we talk about finding which fitness activity works well for you — and the value of setting a motivating goal to work toward. Today, my goals look different than they did a year ago: Rather than working toward a big ride, I’m using my exercise to work toward a good night’s sleep during the pandemic. And you can, too. Tune in for tips on how to get started.