“Fitness and movement are my ‘magic’.”

02 March 2021
Jemma at home, with a horse and out on her bike.

Jemma, 39, was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis when she was 23.

She started experiencing the symptoms during her teens and was advised by her doctor that it was “just growing pains.” By the time Jemma was officially diagnosed, she could barely walk.

Jemma, a qualified yoga teacher, shares how regular exercise and having a healthy, balanced diet has helped with her arthritis and living in lockdown.

“It can be frustrating when you realise you can’t do things that others can, but you just have to look for the positives.”

When I was first diagnosed, I was in pain 24/7. I couldn’t sleep and my short temper made my home environment very tense. Everyone would walk on eggshells around me and worst of all, I knew they were doing it. I couldn’t do simple chores around the house and had to ask for help, which just made me feel inadequate.

I’ve tried different treatments and medication to manage my symptoms, but I’ve found that practicing yoga has improved my mobility and exercise helps my wellbeing.

“The first lockdown last March felt a bit like a holiday with the sunny weather.”

The lack of structure and discipline with my food and fitness quickly took its toll during lockdown. I found myself having to implement a pretty strict regime again.

I felt sluggish, my inflammation felt present, my sleep was impacted and my mood overall. I also experienced the loss of my Grandfather and couldn’t pay my respects due to COVID-19 restrictions and shielding.

All of these things combined led me to return to my failsafe - running.

For me there is nothing better than feeling the ground at my feet and music in my ears. I also created little personal challenges which kept me motivated and it was a small way of paying back to the people who had nursed my Grandad.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to stay working during the whole pandemic.”

Working does come with the challenge of being online 8 hours every weekday. I have now implemented a morning walk of at least 3 or 4k before I spend hours sat down. This has really helped my mobility.

I find that going out first thing seems to wake my body up and spring it into action for the rest of the day. On the few days I’ve not managed it, I get joint ache, increased tiredness and frustration.

Also, prepping my food on a Sunday for the week ahead helps me to stay on track and keep snacking at bay.

“Walking has definitely helped me during this time.”

As much as I love running it's much harder in the cold winter months on the joints, so I wrap up warm and head out on a long walk with a coffee instead.

I’ve been using a free app called My Possible Self. It tracks your mood and gives lots of helpful tips and self-help modules. I’ve used it as a journal to help spot any triggers that might impact my mood.

I’ve definitely noticed that on the days and weeks when I’ve maintained a daily routine, this has positively impacted my mood and productivity.

In addition, I’ve downloaded the free app Duolingo to learn French. I’m really surprised how much it chills me out and how much I’ve learned and retained somehow! :) It’s a fantastic way to stop mindlessly scrolling social media and you’re learning something from it.

They have a darn league table though so my competitive nature means I can’t stop now. Haha … I reached 2nd in the Gold league last month.

“Fitness and movement are my ‘magic’.”

Even as recently as this morning I really didn’t want to go out first thing as it was grey and rainy, but I knew that I always, always feel better afterwards. As my go-to fitness guru Joe Wickes says, “you never regret a workout”. It’s so blimmin’ true.

I’ve tried to return to yoga at times too but to be very honest I’ve found that my mind is often too busy to fully absorb the practice, which probably means I need it more than ever.

I think working, living, eating and doing everything in your house means I personally have to take my fitness outside. When the weather was a bit nicer at the back end of November, I did outdoor yoga a few times and I will certainly return to that in the Spring, if the gyms don’t re-open.

To give something back and as a Christmas present to my sister I registered us for the Action Challenge Winter Walk around London. It's a sponsored half marathon and so far we’ve raised nearly £500 for Versus Arthritis. I’ve also booked us a follow-up spa day the day afterwards to nurse our aches and pains.

“If you want to start exercising, my advice would be...”

  • It's helpful to keep moving. Little and often, where possible.
  • You don’t need to do anything too extreme if you don’t want to or can’t.
  • There are so many free resources available on YouTube which include chair yoga, basic joint movement, Tai Chi, walking meditations and even pre-bed wind-downs.
  • Your body is a vehicle and therefore needs movement and maintenance. Fuel it and move it to keep it running in the best possible way.
  • If you can’t manage a mental switch down then try a simple 10 minutes of stretching each day, this can be beneficial to ease stiffness.

My Grandmother recently went into a nursing home and they enrolled her on a simple chair-fitness programme. She sounds the happiest she’s been in a long time just for this minimal movement.

It’s sad to hear her reflect that she wishes she had stayed fitter in her younger years. My aim is to keep as much energy in this body for as long as it’ll allow me to.

“My everyday tips for others with arthritis include...”

  • I highly recommend an Epsom salts bath at least once a week.
  • Good shoes for any walking and keeping joints warm.
  • It’s definitely worth joining forums or looking at websites such as Versus Arthritis to keep an eye on hints, tips and updates on research around arthritis conditions.
  • Mood wise, even when I don’t think I want it, some really upbeat music can be a total mood changer and lift any lack of energy.
  • Sleep! The one thing I can’t quite master yet. I’ve tried all the tricks; no late food, no blue light, a sunrise lamp alarm clock … sadly I think I’m just a very light sleeper and a very early bird. Sleep really impacts my mood, productivity, food cravings and general wellbeing. I am practicing getting better at naps instead ;)
  • Eat well.

I try to make food prep fun and will put on a podcast on a Sunday afternoon and spend a couple of hours prepping for the week ahead. I’ve been exploring the world of homemade soups and breads, discovering new ones each week.

This week I am making broccoli and Roquefort with a homemade focaccia bread. Wish me luck - they aren’t always perfect!

I like making my own food where possible as can be sure of the ingredients within it. I have personally found that diet majorly impacts my inflammation and avoiding starchy carbs and too much sugar is better for me.

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