She makes no bones about: Alicia Arden is a diva in spandex. Nearly every day, she stretches on the Lycra and with perfectly coiffed hair leaves work and heads to the gym, where she works out for two hours to ease her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms and fight for her life, she says.
But she wasn’t always so committed to improving her health. The Warrenton, Va., resident, who also has epilepsy, was severely overweight when she was diagnosed with RA in 2008. Barely able to walk due to the pain in her knees, hips and right shoulder, it took a hard dose of reality from her doctors to motivate her: Lose the weight or slowly die, they told her.
Alicia joined Weight Watchers and shed 50 pounds. Then she gained it back. In 2011 she started aquatic exercise classes. She stuck with it, slowly increased her workouts and hired a personal trainer and nutritionist. “Within one year I lost 102 pounds and I have not stopped,” she says.
In addition to exercise and a healthy diet, Alicia also controls her RA with two disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs and keeps her epilepsy in check with other medications.
On the eve of her 50th birthday, we chatted with Alicia about her experiences and the moxie that has motivated her to drop more than 10 dress sizes.
Q: How has arthritis affected you?
A: I had to fight for my life. When I first got sick I could only go up and down the stairs once a day. My husband reminds me every day, “I remember you couldn’t even walk up the stairs without breathing hard.” I knew I was dying. I can now walk up and down the stairs with no problems. I have more energy than I can even offer!
Q: What’s your weight-loss secret weapon?
A: It’s no secret. One: drinking plenty of water. Two: You have to get seven to eight hours of rest. Three: You have to exercise. Four: You have to eat the right food. And stick with it.
Q: How has your life improved since you’ve lost weight?
A: Oh my gosh! I have confidence. After retirement [in 2016] I want to go into fitness and I want to start an active-wear clothing line [for plus-size women]. When I started working out, and with the size I was – about a 34 – I couldn’t find anything to wear. I said, “This isn’t fair. I’m a diva.” I didn’t care how big I was, I wanted to look good!
Q: On a scale of 1 to 10, how has your pain changed?
A: My pain was like a 20. Right now, it’s like 0.0. On days when it’s rainy or cold, then it’s like a 2, but it doesn’t stop me from working out.
Q: What do you do when you feel like you can’t exercise?
A: I’ll be honest, there are days when I’m like, “Do I have to go?” But I still go, even on days when my body is swollen and my joints are achy or it’s a rainy day. I pop an extra ibuprofen and let the instructor know, “I’m not me today, so let’s not get crazy.” But I still push myself and I go.
Q: Ever have reservations about working out due to your weight?
A: I didn’t care how I looked. I was on a mission. Honestly, there were times I couldn’t even put my legs up in the air. I was the biggest thing in the pool and I did not care. I just thought I have got to exercise to get this weight off. My hair was done and my makeup was on, but the thing was, I did not care. And you’re right; people are judging you. But you know what? As big as I was, I was in the front of the class and made sure I learned and understood. Don’t pass judgment on yourself or others. You do only what your body can do.
Q: What got you through the grueling workouts?
A: Even when I felt like there’s no way I can do this – “I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” I would say to myself, because you feel like you’re alone and there’s no way you can get going – but you can, you really can. But you have to make that commitment; you have to make that decision. Even back when I regained the 50 pounds, I never stopped.
Q: What’s your favorite workout?
A: Yoga. I strongly believe the meditation and yoga itself has been a great help for my epilepsy.
Q: What’s on your workout playlist?
A: I love Justin Timberlake. I love Janet Jackson. Beyoncé is OK. Earth Wind and Fire.
Q: What’s your go-to weight loss meal?
A: I love a nice green salad with a chicken breast. I make it with olive oil, egg whites, chicken breast, lettuce, onion and chic peas.
Q: What do you eat on your cheat days?
A: I love french fries, french fries, french fries. I can’t eat them, so sometimes I make home potatoes with melted cheese and onions.
Q: What keeps you motivated?
A: Fighting for my life and not wanting to go backward to where I was. I didn’t want the pain anymore – in my knees and in my body.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I like hanging out with my girlfriends, hosting events at my home, going on date nights with my husband and gardening around my house.
Q: Any regrets?
A: At first I did. I was mad I got RA. I thought, “Here we go again. First the seizures and now RA.” And I was like, “Why me? Why am I always getting sick?” But I’m kind of happy it happened because it forced me to have a healthy lifestyle. Now I can live my second half of my life fit.
Q: What has this journey taught you?
A: I learned not to give up. I learned I had to make a change in life. I learned dedication.
Q: Any advice for others?
A: They’re not alone and they can do this, too.
Alicia’s Weekly Workout Schedule
Alicia takes a variety of cardio and strength-training classes – each one hour long – to ensure her fitness regime is well-rounded. But, she says, her workouts weren’t always so long. If you’re just starting out, five- to 10-minute workouts each day can have positive health effects. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about what type of exercise may be best for you. A personal trainer who has experience working with people who have arthritis or physical limitations can also help.
- Monday – Core Fusion Barre, Zumba toning
- Tuesday – step aerobics, land Zumba
- Wednesday – fit yoga, spin, jab kick core
- Thursday – water aerobics, body pump
- Friday – rest
- Saturday – spin, body pump
- Sunday – rest
Alicia recently earned Zumba and yoga fitness certifications and is currently working toward a personal trainer certification.
This story was featured in the January-February 2014 issue of Arthritis Today Magazine.