From the Archives: Spring 2006 Lupus Now magazine
Leap Into Spring! Make small steps now for a healthier you
by Phyllis McIntosh
Ah, spring! The season of rebirth and rejuvenation, the perfect time to shake off the cobwebs and commit to a healthier lifestyle -- maybe even discover a new passion to lift the spirit and provide a welcome diversion from bodily woes.
For anyone with a chronic illness, pushing the body and mind "prevents isolation, releases endorphins [the feel-good chemicals in the brain], and gives one self-confidence," says Daniel J. Wallace, M.D., a rheumatologist and clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles.
"By improving your physical functioning and mental outlook, you help yourself, you help your family, and you help your physician as well, because a patient who tries is easier to work with," adds Evelyn Hess, M.D., a rheumatologist and immunologist and a professor of medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
But how to get motivated, you ask, when your joints hurt, you have zero energy, and your mood is in the cellar? Obviously, there is no one answer for everyone, but there is some action almost any of us can take to kick ourselves into a higher gear.
Move Your Body
The mild days of spring make us want to get out and about, so take advantage of the glorious weather by going for a stroll or puttering in the garden. If you opt for more serious exercise, aim for activities that strengthen muscles without aggravating inflamed joints and muscles, Wallace advises.
Walking, swimming, bicycling, low-impact aerobics, yoga, Pilates, and stretching exercises are good, he says, but avoid intense workouts. Jogging, weight lifting, rowing, or anything that puts a lot of pressure on the upper back or neck area shouldn't be your first choice. When working in your garden, it's best to squat, not stoop, and to use gloves and tools that do not put a lot of pressure on inflamed joints of the hand, Wallace adds.
Hess highly recommends Tai Chi, a Chinese system of exercises that combines gentle yoga-like movements and meditation to improve strength, flexibility, and balance. Many local organizations offer classes in this popular art. At home, Hess suggests toning up with some mild exercises just after a bath or shower, when you're warm and relaxed.
Whatever form of exercise you choose, consult your doctor first, and perhaps ask for a referral to a physical therapist for advice on specific movements that are both safe and beneficial.
Remember that there are plenty of ways to become more active without the expense of joining a health club, hiring a personal trainer, or enrolling in a class. Walking is free, whether in your neighborhood or perhaps with a group at the local shopping mall. You can swim at many YMCAs or YWCAs and community recreation centers for a nominal fee. Check if there is a lupus support group in your area -- many invite nurses or physical therapists to give pointers on exercise. Finally, programs that can instruct you in the gentler forms of exercise, such as yoga and Tai Chi, are as close as your television set. Check your local cable television listing or look into some of the many available videotapes and DVDs.
Connect With Friends
"The best thing I do every year to rejuvenate is meet a friend, who lives in California, at an art conference. We take classes together for a week, catch up on each other's lives, and create," says Cindy Coney, 50, a foundation executive in Tampa, FL. "We call it our 'play date,' and we've done it every year except one since 1997. I can't tell you how much the whole experience helps my health, because I have something to look forward to, it's a complete break from my daily routine, and I just think about being creative."
Of course, if flying across the country to connect with old friends isn't an option, some of the most valuable social contacts can be found right in your area. Local lupus support groups make for a great place to meet people who understand how you feel and what you're going through.
"Chronic illness makes people feel isolated, so if they can come together and have that sense of belonging, that's very healing," says Sharon Mack, co-chair of the Lupus Foundation of America's Education Committee. She adds that informal get-togethers, such as meeting regularly for breakfast or lunch or going to the theater or to play miniature golf, can be just as important and a relaxed, fun way to bond.
Tap Into Your Inner Artist
Coney and her friend always plan their yearly reunion around some creative experience such as an art or writers' workshop, which she finds helps her forget about lupus and get outside of herself. At home, she often turns to needlework.
"When you have lupus, it quiets your life somewhat, and you have to find other ways to express yourself," Coney says. With needlework, "you don't have to think too much, it's very repetitive, almost meditative, and when you're finished you can say, 'Oh, look, I made something, I feel productive.'"
Writing, too, can provide a creative release. Coney advocates keeping a journal as a way to explore the emotions that surround living with a chronic illness. "It's my way of seeing what's on my inside," she notes. "Sometimes, I even dialogue with the lupus."
Simple patio gardening or planting a small flowerbed can also get your creative juices flowing and at the same time get you outdoors in the fresh air.
Give Others Inspiration
When Millicent Holliday, 42, of Houston, was diagnosed with lupus three years ago, "it just turned me upside down," she says. "I was always a structured, disciplined person and very active. I was into all kinds of sports, especially basketball, and exercised all the time. This changed my whole life, and I didn't know who this new person was."
Besieged by fatigue, joint and muscle pain, headaches, depression, and poor concentration, Holliday was forced to abandon a career in law enforcement and now receives government disability coverage and lives with her mother.
But Holliday has found a way, as she says, "to turn it around." She recalls how she would get upset every October when Lupus Awareness Month came and went with no attention.
"I'd wonder, why isn't somebody doing something about this, and it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I'm the one who should be doing something. So I've become an advocate, spreading the word about lupus."
As an adviser for a health-promotion campaign launched by the Baylor College of Medicine's Center for Research on Women with Disabilities, she talks to fellow African Americans and other minorities who are often hit earliest and hardest by lupus. She also organized a group called Lupus 24/7, and with a psychologist developed a series of eight workshops to teach patients coping skills and how to communicate effectively with their physicians.
With an improved outlook and new treatment that she hopes will calm her symptoms, Holliday is slowing starting to exercise again. She walks, does stretching exercises, and works with small hand weights. This spring, she hopes to take up yoga and try bicycling again. And she is dreaming of one day even returning to the basketball court.
Cindy Coney, who has learned to listen carefully to her body during 25 years of living with lupus, offers some final words of wisdom: "Finding the things that make me feel better, that's been the secret for me. So, strive for balance in your life, and above all, do what's right for you."