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'I was in the shape of my life but now I can barely button up a shirt'

Alison McIndoe, a personal trainer, initially attributed her knee pain to excessive gym workouts. However, when routine tasks like washing her hair became increasingly difficult due to stiffness and pain in her hands and fingers, she realised something was amiss.

At the tender age of 40, Alison had transitioned from being in peak physical condition to struggling with basic tasks such as buttoning up a shirt within a few months. The shock was even greater when doctors diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in March 2023.

Now 42 and residing in Glasgow, Alison recalls: “I was devastated. There is a lot of confusion surrounding rheumatoid arthritis, people think it’s about old people with creaky joints, but it’s nothing like that at all.”

The NHS reports that RA affects over 400,000 individuals in the UK, with symptoms including joint pain and inflammation. “It’s an auto-immune disease but as it’s not life threatening, it can be difficult for people to sympathise with,” Alison explains.

“Many women are diagnosed between the ages of 40 and 45, like me. It completely changes your day-to-day life.”

In 2018, while operating her private studio in Glasgow, Alison fell pregnant with her daughter Amelie, who is now five. She experienced morning sickness and was too ill to exercise.

As a new mum she found herself battling postnatal depression and body image issues after gaining three stone following the birth of her daughter Amelie in September 2018. The situation worsened when lockdown hit, closing gyms and leaving her feeling trapped.

In her desperation for change, she began focusing on manifesting a more positive future. She said: “One day, after dragging my heavy, stiff legs upstairs I got my yoga mat out and spent 15 minutes stretching on my living room floor. I kept this routine up and slowly I didn’t feel as stiff.”

Despite developing plantar fasciitis after trying yoga classes, Alison remained determined. She continued to cycle on her spin bike, use weights at home, and eat healthily.

In October 2021, inspired by her new regime, she applied to join the fire service, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

To pass the required bleep fitness test, she increased her workouts to four times a week. Although she failed the test in November 2022, she was proud of her progress.

When she woke up with a stiff knee three weeks later, she attributed it to over-exercising.

Her GP diagnosed her with bursitis in the knee a condition where the fluid-filled sacs (bursa) that cushion the joints become painful and swollen but assured her it would ease off in a few weeks. However, in January 2023, Alison started experiencing stiffness and pain in her hands and fingers.

“I managed to see my GP again and I explained my hand and knee pain, and now swelling in my knee so he ran some blood tests. A few days later, he called to confirm they indicated possible arthritis and he referred me to rheumatology. I had to stop exercising again.

“I had spent so long improving my health, and now I was faced with this.”

Alison was referred straight for an ultrasound and a knee aspiration.

Alison said: “This involved doctors removing bright orange fluid from my knee during a painful procedure, before being given a steroid injection which gave quick relief. She was even able to return to the gym, though she was limited to walking on the treadmill, but she became aware she could no longer grip weights like before.

“Blood tests then showed she was positive for the rheumatoid factor, Alison asked the consultant if she had the autoimmune condition. “It’s hard to explain how I felt when I was first diagnosed, no one came out and told me,” Alison says. “It was never put in writing. But by that point I’d had multiple blood tests and appointments, so it wasn’t a surprise.

“”I was hopeful I could start medication and find some letup from the pain now there was a diagnosis. It’s only when I was months down the line and dealing with RA on a day-to-day basis that I began to realise how life changing it was.

” She was determined to make the best of it though.”

The weights I used got lighter, but I wasn’t giving up,” Alison declared. “Once diagnosed, I was told I will need daily medication as there is no cure. Some days my five year old daughter has to help me get dressed, and I have to use a wooden spoon to open my microwave.

“”I replaced my kettle with a hot water dispenser because I couldn’t lift the kettle safely. I bought jar openers and now use an electric tin opener.

I don’t store heavy bottles in my fridge door as it makes it too heavy to open. I bought a food processor to save me from chopping vegetables.

I now use a shampoo brush to help wash my hair when my fingers are too sore and wear bras without hooks to fasten. I walk Amelie to school rather than drive because I struggle to fasten our seat belts.

“Some days are better than others. The pain can come and go on unexpectedly, but a year after diagnosis, Alison is striving to reduce her symptoms. She’s returned to personal training, rebranding herself as BodyProud With Alison and adapting how she teaches by moving her services online.She recently started a biologic medication, which she self-injects in her leg or stomach every fortnight via the NHS’s Sciensus scheme. It can take three months to see any improvement but she’s hopeful.

“Alison, who has been battling with her condition, has explored a variety of treatments beyond her prescribed medication in an effort to improve her health. These include red light therapy, infrared saunas, CBD balm, turmeric, collagen, and even fasting. She shared, “I am striving to find a way to heal and reduce my symptoms. This isn’t the life I envisaged for myself, but I’m enjoying exploring the options and raising awareness.”

When it comes to exercising with rheumatoid arthritis, Alison’s background as a personal trainer has been invaluable. She has adapted her fitness regime to accommodate her condition and offers advice to others:

– Modify your exercise routine to accommodate your limitations instead of giving up. After her diagnosis, Alison had to give up running due to knee swelling and pain, so she switched to walking on an incline treadmill.

She also invested in lifting hooks to aid her weightlifting.

– Take regular walks and breathe in fresh air to boost your mood and maintain activity levels. If you need extra support, bring along a friend.

On days when even this seems too much, simply sitting outside to catch some morning daylight can help lift your spirits.

– Incorporate stretching or mobility work into your daily routine. While some days may be tougher than others, engaging in simple stretches, even while seated, can help alleviate pain and stiffness.

– Don’t neglect strength training, especially as you get older. Just 10 to 15 minutes with light dumbbells at home can make a difference.


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