It takes two: how friends with arthritis support each other to stay active

02 August 2021

Alan (50) and Rob (age 56) both live with arthritis and work in the fitness industry. They became firm friends bonding over their shared passion for exercise.

Alan was diagnosed with neck and back osteoarthritis in 2001 and Rob, a former world soccer freestyle champion who has held five Guinness world record certificates has been living with psoriatic arthritis since 2009.

Here, they share how exercise helps them and their tips to others with arthritis on the benefits of movement.

Can you each tell us about your diagnosis?

[Alan] I was 26 when I started to experience stiffness in my back whilst doing my runs at RAF Coningsby. When I was 30, I was medically discharged from the Royal Air Force as a firefighter. My back began to flare up more regularly.

Also, I had a car accident, and I think this accelerated the progress of my arthritis. I had stiffness in my lower back and sometimes debilitating pain. The pain from arthritis moves around your body.

I was diagnosed after having an MRI Scan at John Radcliffe Hospital. I do have pain and stiffness all the time, but it varies to what degree.

[Rob] My symptoms started after coming off the pitch in Brazil where I was performing my freestyle footballer skills in the Maracanã stadium.

I ended up with severe swelling in 11 joints and I was in a wheelchair for three months. For the next two years, I couldn’t even kick a football. Thirteen years on, I struggle sometimes with range of motion and occasional flare ups of pain, stiffness and swelling.

How are you doing on an average day and what helps?

[Alan] Most of the time the pain is manageable. I accept I’ll have flare ups and I try to keep positive.

I turned a negative, my condition, into something positive, by retraining in the fitness Industry and I absolutely love it. Turning my hobby into my full-time job was the best decision I have made.

Exercise helps me with my physical, emotional, and mental health.

Teaching exercise is such a buzz and helping people to improve their quality of life is such a reward.

I’ve realised stress can cause my arthritis to flare up and so it’s important to strike a balance in life. The happier and more relaxed you are can really make a difference.

[Rob] Today, compared with when I was first diagnosed is almost night and day. My focus now is trying to get as close to the level of fitness I had before I went to Brazil.

Mornings tend to be when I experience the most stiffness in particular after getting up, but as the day progresses with movement, it becomes easier.

Working at the wellbeing facility gives me the opportunity to exercise regularly. This helps me to deal with the physical and wellbeing aspects of psoriatic arthritis.

My little girl is nine and I want to stay fit and healthy for her. Family and friends have been my biggest support. Without the help and support from my little girl’s mother, I wouldn’t be at the stage I am at now.

As you both have arthritis, how is talking to each other different from talking to your family and other friends?

[Alan] We have a shared understanding of how debilitating arthritis is and how it can affect your life, but we motivate each other, and we share this with anyone we meet.

[Rob] Talking to each other about arthritis is different than talking to certain friends and family, as we understand what we are talking about. With some people, you get the feeling they don’t quite get it.

Do you think people have enough awareness of your condition?

[Alan] I don’t think the general population have enough awareness of arthritis.

One day you can feel free of the disease and the next it can be so debilitating. I would like people to have more empathy and understanding for people living with arthritis.

I want anyone who is newly diagnosed with arthritis to know, you can still have a fulfilling life.

[Rob] Many people know the term ‘arthritis’ but are maybe not aware of the many different types of arthritis conditions there are.

I don’t think people are fully aware of the daily struggles of having psoriatic arthritis.

It’s extremely important to sleep well at nights as that’s when the body will repair and recover itself for the next day's assault on it.

Good nutrition is also key in fuelling the body to enhance its efficiency but even more so when suffering with a physical illness.

Do you have exercise advice for people living with arthritis?

[Alan] For me, I played football from a young age and lots of running to keep fit and weight training. When I was 29, I had to give up football and running because of the high impact.

I adapted to a new way of training for weight training. For example, doing bodyweight squats and lunges instead of lifting heavy weights which reduces strain on the spine.

My other low-impact alternatives included mountain walking/hiking and yoga (for flexibility and mobility). I carried on doing weight training and fitness training in the gym. For example, using the stationary bike, cross-trainer and circuits with resistance machines and dumbbells to keep the heart and lungs strong.

Exercising can be a life changing experience and to see the smiles on my client’s faces is so rewarding. I would say...

  • Keep moving, stay positive, eat healthily and have a good night’s sleep.
  • Try exercise alternatives, use your body weight instead of heavy weights.
  • Surround yourself with positive people and find the activities you can do. Always have a purpose in life.

With arthritis you will get periods where you get flare up. This is where medication and rest come into play. Acceptance is very important to know this will happen. However, once the arthritis calms down, you can get back to your fitness, just make sure you begin slowly and don’t overdo it.

[Rob] Working in the industry gives me the opportunity to help others with fitness/health issues and to work with individuals who may have symptoms like mine. We might talk about this when we train.

My advice to anyone with arthritis who can’t do what they could the same exercises they used to would be:

  • Don’t let it stop you from improving from whatever stage you are at present.
  • There will be times when the pain is great and times when it is minimal. Try small steps to move, stretch, walk, start gently and work in moderation.
  • When working with weights during fitness sessions, be sure to gauge the poundage you’re lifting relevant to the body part you are working to avoid putting excessive strain on the joints.

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