Strong Women: 'Arthritis doesn't have to be a life sentence of pain'

A study by Sport England found that 75% of women avoid being active due to a fear of judgement.

Much of that comes down to the pressure to look a certain way – when we only see one type of woman in the media and in advertising campaigns, it’s easy to think that you’re not good enough if you don’t conform to that image.

But women of any age, size, race and ability can be fit, strong and love their bodies.

Strong Women is a weekly series that aims to redefine what it means to be strong and normalise diverse images of the female form.

Mel was diagnosed with arthritis in her early 40s. Fitness helps her manage her symptoms and ease the pain, but she wants there to be wider public understanding about the condition.

How does arthritis affect your life?

I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my hands and knees when I was 43.

I was quite taken aback when I was diagnosed, as although I knew I had it in my knees, I didn’t have any idea I might have it in my hands. It was quite a shock

But as I came to terms with it, my stubbornness kicked in and decided I’d have to deal with this, which is why I joined the gym

To be honest I didn’t know where to start – a lot of what I did caused me pain. But now, some years on, it doesn’t affect my life anywhere near as much – but you do always know it’s there.

I can feel it when I wake up especially, but I do everything I can do manage it.

My knees ache, but my hands, should there be a flare up can be particularly bad. It affects dexterity, simple things people take for granted, opening doors, doing up zips, things like that.

How did it feel to get an arthritis diagnosis in your early 40s?

It’s weird – I expected it in my knees as it was obvious, but not in my hands. It was quite shocking to hear that it was arthritis. My mum had arthritis, and my granddad, and I knew how it affected them.

You just feel alone. You don’t know where to turn. You feel isolated because you don’t know what to expect. I came out of a doctor’s room and just thought, ‘what now?’

There just isn’t the support there, and I didn’t realise the affect it could have.

I have found that people aren’t always sympathetic when I tell them about my condition. That’s not a criticism, they just don’t understand what it’s like to have it.

Because you can’t see it – I may not walk differently – I don’t know whether people just don’t know about it.

One of my best friends now completely gets it, as she’s taken the time to listen and see how it affects me.

I’m lucky as my trainer has also done a lot of research into chronic conditions and he gets it. I think generally it just comes down to a lack of information.

There’s a misconception that once you have arthritis, that’s it. It’s a life sentence of pain, and that’s why I do the work I do with Versus Arthritis, to get rid of that stigma.

Dealing with the challenges that come with this condition can feel quite isolating.

What is your relationship with fitness like? 

I love fitness.

When I joined the gym a few years ago, I didn’t know what it would lead to.

But now, I love that my body is fit, I love training. I tend to go to the gym five days a week and I walk every day as well at the moment.

I do cardio at the gym, running, weight training, squats. Squats are a thing I never thought I’d be able to do, because of how low you have to go.

I love doing exercise that makes me feel strong. Not for anyone else, or for people to think, ‘oh she looks like a strong woman physically’, but I like to feel strong.

I think that’s because with arthritis, you do feel vulnerable, but fitness makes me realise, hang on a minute – my body is a wonderful thing and it can do this.

Getting into fitness has been life-changing.

It has helped my symptoms so much – when I started training with Shane, my trainer, I used to be in agony just walking up stairs. It was horrific. Within three weeks of consistent exercise, I could walk up stairs without pain.

I still have flare-ups, which I deal with and manage. But the symptoms I have and the way I am now, fitness has improved my symptoms so much.

Your mood can be quite low, as well. And exercise can make me feel so much better in that way too.

I really enjoy challenging myself to progress, to get stronger, to get better. But I know it doesn’t have to be gym-setting to exercise.

I’ve been out with friends and we’ve started working out together in a park. It’s really just keeping moving and also keeping it consistent. That’s what really helped my symptoms.

It’s about listening to your body, finding out what works for you, and just keeping at it.

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