My rheumatologist, Dr. Bayliss, is a doctors doctor. Cool, logical, seemingly unflappable. So when I asked him if rollerblading was good exercise for arthritis, he merely paused before asking, You’re not serious, are you?
My daughters orthopedic surgeon was more to the point: What, are you insane?
So much for the doctors recommendation.
Insanity notwithstanding, I still contend that rollerblading is excellent aerobic exercise for people with arthritis. Its adaptable you can skate as fast or slow as you are able; its weight-bearing even though you glide, the weight of the skates helps keep your bones strong; its easy to learn and, most importantly, its fun. Furthermore, provided that all precautions are taken, it is safe.
Everyone Should have a Sandy
Everyone should have a friend like Sandy, a girl who is incapable of hearing the word cant. She is who Xena wants to be when she grows up. A software engineer used to working in a heavily male environment, she isat 41also an experienced spelunker who leads expeditions into local caves, a deep-sea diver, a serious backpacker/hiker (were talking primitive camping, folks; no TV or anything), an annual participant in the local triathlon and an all-around exercise junkie. Shes the kind of person whowhen invited to a gathering in another town, 40 miles awaydecides to ride her bikeand does.
Needless to say, wimpery just doesnt fly with Sandy. If you say that you wish you could do somethingsay, white-water raftingnext thing you know, you are damp, terrified and clinging to the side of a water-filled raft. Its just too hard telling someone like Sandy that you cant do something, because of arthritis or any other reason.
Which leadsfinallyto why I started rollerblading. I told Sandy that rollerblading looked fun and the next time I saw her, I was heavily geared and slipping around very uncertainly on a pair of her skates. After a few false starts (dont even ask me about the time I couldnt stop and ran straight into the back of my Volvo), I began to get the hang of itand the next morningvoila! no flare.
Why Skating Works
What most people dont understanddoctors includedis that walking is not good exercise if you have deformities in your feet, especially in the metatarsals (I dont imagine that its great fun for people with bad knees and hips, either). If you have these kinds of deformitiesand most of us whove had RA for a few years dothe cushioning in your feet is gone. When I go for a nice long walk for more than fifteen minutes or so, I feel as if Im walking on my bones.
But when you skate, there is no impact (I know, I knowunless you fall. Ill get to that), no pressure on your feet. Rollerblading requires a smooth, gliding technique: no jarring, bone-shaking activity at all. You dont have to be in Olympic-ready shape, either. You can skate as slowly or as quickly as you like, just adjust your speed according to your stamina. And, once you get the hang of it, its great fun. Its one of the few exercises that I actually enjoy.
No doubt about it, this is quite a workout for the heart and lungsbut you can temper the tempo to your own abilities.
My rheumatologist has reluctantly admitted that rollerblading is a weight-bearing exercise and hence, prevents osteoporosis.
- Makes you beautiful
Okay, maybe not. But skating does create strong muscles in the thighs, calves, buttocks, abs, pecs, deltoids and tricepsand with a shape like that–who knows?–it could lead to accidental beauty.
By now, those of you who are regular readers know that I am a self-professed lover of the hard wayI did not take any lessons, but rather, just hurled myself out there, as usual. Which is stupid, especially when they offer lessons at a very reasonable rate, just over the bridge. Dont do as I dotake some lessons. You will learn skills that might come in handy, like, how to stop. If they offer lessons in our tiny town, surely they offer them in yours. If not, do the second-best thing: find a patient kid to teach you. Kids love being better at something than we are; even more, they love to laugh at us. So, go ahead: make a kid smile.
Protective gear is not optional. Gear up as if you are going into battle. Even the best skaters wipe out sometimes and pavement does ugly things to unprotected bones and joints. I know and understand all of the excuses: it messes up your hair, its a pain, it takes too much time, it costs too much, Ill look like a geek (which I think is the main reason people refuse to gear up). Well, there is a counter-argument to each of these excuses, which Ill address below. Besides, professional skaters wouldnt think of skating without gearing upfor that matter, football players are completely padded, and look how tough they are. And, if it makes you feel any better, even Sandy wouldnt consider skating without wearing proper safety equipment.
Go ahead, be stubborn about not taking lessons. Skate on rough, bumpy roads. Even omit the other gear, but DO NOT SKATE WITHOUT A HELMET! Skin abrasions and even broken bones heal, but a head injury can be forever. In our house, no one gets on a bike or skates without a helmetno exceptions.
Knee and Elbow Pads
There are some unique individuals out there who canat speeds up to 20+ MPHcontrol their falls, so that there is no way they can break bonesso they think. Any emergency room worker or orthopedic surgeon will tell you differently. Elbows and knees are prime spots for arthritis and do not need any more damage than theyre already receiving. Knee and elbow pads are inexpensive and readily available. Please wear them.
Broken wrists are the most common injuries in rollerblading. When we fallthanks to our wonderful instinctsour hand shoots out to soften the blow. Which is great, except that most of the impact is on the wrist. Wrists are fragile, complicated devicesmuch underrated in the bone and joint world. They are also favorite hangouts for arthritis. If you do not wear wrist guards, you will learn to appreciate your wrists the hard way.
Yes, Im serious. Yes, they look ridiculous. And yes, carloads of smartass teenagers drive by and laugh at me. Every time I skate, I am sorely tempted not to wear the silly contraption. I feel like an idiot. I look like an idiot. But then I wonder how intelligent I would look in the emergency room, getting an extra smile stitched up by some smirking resident. So, you look like a geek. Remember, one of the best things about being a grown-up is that you dont have to be cool anymore.
This can be trickier than you would think. Many cops are extremely anti-skating. I guess too many disenfranchised, violet-haired, foul-mouthed little boys have caused our gentle officers to become a bit jadedand who can blame them? Your best bet it to call your local precinct and ask just what the laws are in your area. In my fair-minded, moderately liberal little town, I was shocked to find that skating is not allowed on the roads at allnot even residential roads. I politely flout this law by skating on a road in the city park, where the speed limit is a mere 15 MPH. Policemen pass me every time, and Ive yet to be stopped.
Of course, if you live in a moderate size town, you probably have a skating park. At first blush, this would seem idealexcept for some of the little creeps who hang out in skate parks. Try to go during school hours and hope that not too many of them are cutting class. Again, parks are a great place to skate, but check out the road itself. Ill-tended roads create a rough ride and can be quite dangerous. Also, avoid hills until you feel really confident (its been two years and I still dont feel confident enough for hills!). And, of course, avoid heavily traveled roads, blind curves, and any other road that could potentially leave you in traction.
How to Skate
Tricked you! I wouldnt dream of teaching you to skate. Go to an expert and let them teach you. But, as always, there are a few arthritic considerations that they probably wont know.
- Stretch, stretch, stretch
True, your skating instructor will probably mention the need to stretchbut you and I know that you should at least double the stretching time of a non-arthie. Rollerblading works many muscles; you will probably discover muscles that you didnt know you had, so play it safestretch them all.
- Lean on your brother
Or your sister, friend, spouse or anyone else strong enough to support some of your weight. Have a non-skating buddy walk beside you the first few times you skate and keep one hand lightly on their shoulder. Its a good way to get started and gain confidence until you are ready to go solo.
- Dont tie your own skates
Ironically, tying your skates may be the toughest part of skating. The first time I went skating with Sandy, I was having a terrible time of it. I felt clumsy (more so than usual, that is) and insecureeven worse, I wasnt having any fun. Sandy firmly ordered me by the side of the road and re-tied my skates, actually bracing her foot against my skate and pulling with all her might. It made all the difference in the world. I skated better and I felt better. The moral is: try to get someone else to tie your skates for you. If no one is available (and Im not above asking total, big-handed strangers to help me), try using pliers to pull the laces tight enough. Im serious. Skate laces are extra tough.
- Stretch againand then rest
Besides a general cool down, you need to stretch those muscles again. If this is a new exercise for you, then chances are you will be working some unused muscleswhich could lead to strain and stiffness. Stretching before and after will alleviate some of this. And skating is strenuous exercise. Give your body time to recuperate. You dont have to go to bed for the day, but then you dont need to go from skating to grocery shopping to cleaning the house etc., either. A nice, leisurely soak in the tub should suffice.
Rollerblading is great exercise and its a lot of fun, but thats only part of the reason that I love skating. The main reason I love skating is because I feel so damned normal when Im doing it. Those of us in the arthritic world need as many normal moments as we can possibly afford.