Lynn Marie Witt, 45, was diagnosed with RA almost 20 years ago, but she came to gardening much later, after a period of crisis in her life.
The divorce came first. Then both her parents died. After that, Witt’s rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flared so badly she didn’t know how long she’d be able to walk. But the community garden changed everything.
At first, gardening was hard, but over time Witt noticed that she could work for longer periods without pain. Today, Witt, a former occupational therapist, says that all that digging around in the dirt improves the range of motion in her hands.
“You’re growing life with these seeds. But really, I feel like the garden is growing me,” Witt says. “It’s allowing me movement. It’s allowing me to be free again.”
And studies show that gardening can boost strength and dexterity (doing things with your hands) in some people.
Still, each person is different, and it’s important to consult with your doctor and listen to your body when gardening with RA, says Christina Hanson, an occupational therapist and teacher at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, IL. Set small goals and take breaks, she says.
And take care to protect your back and knees. Some joint-friendly things that may help include:
- Raised or elevated garden beds
- Container gardens
- Tools with a wide base or soft handle
- A bag that keeps everything in one place
- Raised beds with edge you can sit on
- A knee cushion or garden chair
If you need extra help, join a community garden. Witt’s gardening friends pitch in with heavy digging and make grocery runs when she’s not feeling well. “It’s a nice support system to have,” she says.
Talk to an occupational therapist if arthritis keeps you from doing what you love, says Hanson. They’ll help you modify your movements to make it work. And if that’s not possible, they’ll help you find RA-friendly hobbies to boost your quality of life. If gardening is not your thing, here are some activities you might want to try.
This ancient practice mixes flowing movements with deep breathing. And you can use those inhaling and exhaling techniques anywhere. They can even act as an “added helper” for pain management, Hanson says.
You probably can’t get rid of all your joint pain and stiffness with tai chi, but it does show benefits with very little downside. Studies show that in people with RA, it can:
- Help your lower body move better
- Ease stress
- Improve your ability to do basic tasks
- Make you feel a little better overall
There are lots of different ways to learn tai chi. You can download an app or pull up a video on YouTube. “That’s a nice option for people who aren’t able to get to a class,” Hanson says.
Light Hiking and Cycling
Janeil Whitworth, 31, has a family who loves the outdoors. Whitworth has RA, but she’s learned to adapt hiking and biking so they’re easier on her joints. For instance, she uses an electric bike, or e-bike, to get “a little boost” when her knees or hands start to hurt.
She also opts for slow walks and shorter trails. This suits her lifestyle just fine at the moment, says Whitworth. With sons who are ages 4 years and 8 months, “you can’t hike 5 miles,” Whitworth says.
Whatever you choose, it’s key to match your activity to your ability. Here are some tips to get the most out of your outdoor hobbies:
- Plan rest stops.
- Choose flat, smooth paths.
- Go at your own pace.
- Know the terrain.
The most important thing, says Hanson, is to listen to your body. “It’s going to tell you, no, I can’t keep going forward,” Hanson says. “Maybe we need to go back.”
These are fun or relaxing activities that get you thinking. Think puzzles, word games, sudoku, and reading. These hobbies can be fun and may even help to keep your brain sharp as you age. Do them with friends for even more benefit.
Whitworth loves to settle in with a book, especially during a flare. She uses an app to track her progress. The program also gives her a chance to connect with fellow book lovers. “That’s been really cool,” she says. “It’s been a good mental health boost to find that community.”
Reading is easier on your joints than physical hobbies. But not everyone can grip a book for a long time, Hanson says. To ease strain on your hands, you can:
- Listen to your book in audio form (audiobook).
- Use a hands-free book holder.
- Try an e-reader device (typically much lighter).
- Use a reading app on your phone.
Many people with RA like to create in the kitchen. But you may have some pain if you have to do lots of squeezing, twisting, or chopping. The good news is you can take steps to make meal prep easier on your joints.
You’ll find lots of tips online for cooking with RA. You also can talk to an occupational therapist about techniques and tools that may help. Here are a few things they might suggest:
- Learn one-handed cooking techniques if one hand hurts less than the other.
- Stock up on RA-friendly kitchen gear such as utensils with large or soft grips.
- Get a cutting board stabilizer to keep the board from slipping.
It can be fun to make your own meals. But it also gives you a chance to boost your nutrition by choosing healthy ingredients. “That’s a double win situation,” Hanson says.
There isn’t a specific way to eat with RA. But you might want to check out the Mediterranean diet. That’s an anti-inflammatory eating plan that includes lots of healthy fats, herbs, fruits, and green veggies. Talk to a doctor or dietitian to find out more.
Movement is good for your body. And studies show dance may help your mobility and mood. So find a local salsa or ballroom dancing program. Tell them about any movement limitations you might have. They can probably teach you some moves and even find partners that are at your same level. If you prefer doing your dancing on your own, here are some RA-friendly dance classes to try:
- Belly dancing
- Hip hop
Remember to consider the seriousness of your symptoms and consult with your doctor before you start any new physical activity with RA.
Witt doesn’t have full movement in her body. But she still expresses herself through music and dance. Sometimes she teaches ballet to kids. She also goes to an adult tap class. “It’s not at the level I’m trained to do,” Witt says. “But it’s more enjoyable, even if I can’t do crazy spins.”