Karen Purcell has lived with RA since 2014. Here she tells us a little bit about her journey and the role that physical activity has played in keeping her well, both physically and mentally. She encourages everyone to start small and keep their goals realistic. Karen has signed up to the women’s mini marathon in June and aims to raise funds for Arthritis Ireland. Her goal is to run half of the 10k distance.  

Getting diagnosed 

"It was around 2014 when I was diagnosed with lupus and, soon after, RA. It was a real shock as it came out of nowhere, and there was nothing similar in my family. It started with a rash that spread like wildfire, and then I started to develop more symptoms, such as pains in my hands. Blood tests confirmed the diagnosis.  


“I was in my early thirties at the time, and I was really taken aback because I thought nobody in my age group would get something like this. I was also very fit at the time – I played Gaelic football for my county and my local club.  


“The first thought I had was, ‘I’m going to have to give up everything’. I was doing a sports massage course back then, and I really thought that would have to go, but then I realised I didn’t have to give it all up. Instead, I just needed to figure out getting the right support and thinking of lifestyle factors. I ended up completing the course and worked within that field with GAA clubs for a while. 

Learning my limits 

“As time goes on, you learn what you can and cannot do. You learn to manage what demands you put on yourself. That’s been the real learning curve for me. Also, coming from a competitive sports background, it’s hard not to be stubborn about having to make changes to your life. But I learnt from my mistakes. Sometimes I learnt the hard way – I’d experience bad flare ups and didn’t know how to manage them, but the truth is that you learn and grow from these things.  


“Juggling work and flare ups was a big struggle for me at one point. Not being able to walk in the morning, or even pick up something from the floor. Also not being able to pick up the kettle or grip anything. Now I’m much more aware if it’s coming on, or if I’m beginning to feel fatigued, so I’ll take action before it gets worse. 


“I feel very well these days. I’m working and training as normal. I’m a personal trainer and I’ve even set up my own business recently. Yes, of course, I do get a few aches and pains – I’d have stiff hands in the morning, but not to the point where it’s stopping me doing things. I get up and move and stretch. Once I get that movement in each day, then I can manage things. It’s about staying on top of it.  


“Medication plays a role too, of course,” Karen says. “I inject myself once a week. I also get my bloods done regularly to keep an eye on things. But movement really is my medicine. Yes, the medication allows me to go do the stuff that helps with my arthritis, so it all works together, but the movement is key. Lifestyle changes are a crucial part of it all.” 


Living well with Arthritis course 

“By far one of the best things I did during covid was the Living Well with Arthritis Course delivered by Arthritis Ireland. It taught me so much, including the importance of having your toolkit of things to help you manage through flare-ups. The course also really helped me to shift my mindset. And it also definitely gave me that feeling of not being on my own. with it all. Having others to bounce ideas off and seeing that others were experiencing similar challenges – that helped me hugely. 


I’d highly recommend the course to anyone out there living with arthritis, or newly diagnosed. The big thing they taught me was the self-management sides of things, whether it’s exercise, massage, acupuncture, cold and heat therapy, or simply chilling out and knowing when to rest. Being able to communicate to others around you when you get frustrated too, so that they can understand a little better and so that they can offer support and help if you need it.  


“We need to do whatever our life demands of us. But, to do that, we need to build ourselves up to become stronger and more physically active.” 


Setting new, achievable goals & mindset 

“In terms of the jogging, I had to knock it on the head in 2020 as I had problems with my feet. Instead, I kept up walking, and I got really into hiking as a sort of replacement. I’ve hiked Lugnaquilla, Carrauntohil and Croagh Patrick, as well Machu Picchu in Peru. I’ve really enjoyed it, but I’ve also missed the running.  


So I’ve now set myself the goal of the VHI Women’s Mini Marathon in June, which is 10kms – I plan to walk half and jog half. That’s good enough for me – I’ll be happy with that. This time, though, I was really starting from zero. The key is to start small. People often make the mistake of thinking they need to run intensely, for an hour, but why can’t it be just a jog of 15 mins twice a week? Then, if you’re really enjoying it, build up to maybe three times a week. 


“I think it’s mindset thing - there’s often a bit of fear in there for people. That’s why I say start at the absolute basics. Get into a pool or get on an exercise bike – something that’s low impact or get into a gym where someone can show you how to do things safely. There are machines that can support you better and a good personal trainer can show you which ones.  


Performing as well as you can  

We all need to perform in our lives – there are things we need or want to do, whether that means cutting the grass, carrying the kids, painting the hall door, carrying the shopping, or whatever. For our wellbeing, we need to do whatever our life demands of us. But, to do that, we need to build ourselves up to become stronger and more physically active.  


It’s not about the short-term; this is about the long-term so that we are maintaining a good level of activity with every decade we’re in. It’s not about slowing down as we get older – it’s about living and performing to a point where we can stay active. And, to do that, we need to put the work in 


“If you’re not ready for aerobic exercise, then there’s always time you can find 10 minutes in your day to find a stretching routine. Look at your routine and see where you can fit it in – schedule it so that it becomes a habit. Think about what the alternative is – if you don’t move, you won’t improve any more. What works for me is simple – daily movement. Whether that’s stretching, doing weights or going for a walk or jog.  


Other lifestyle factors 

I’ve also changed my nutrition and that has impacted my energy levels – things like drinking enough water and eating good quality food and making sure to eat protein regularly. You might not feel the benefits straight away, but long-term, you certainly will. 


Heat and cold packs – going between both – and wrist straps for support also work. And then there’s sleep. I know if I don’t get sleep, it has a knock-on effect. I worked night shifts for about a year, and it didn’t suit my arthritis at all. I had a lot more flare-ups. Now I prioritise my sleep. If I know I’m not getting enough, I’ll try to build it back up at weekends and try to get back into a better routine.  


“You have to be a little bit selfish every now and again and find that boundary when to give out that energy to others, and when to top it up for yourself.” 


Destressing is also a big factor. I would say a walk outdoors is a big stress reliever for me – just being out in nature. I’m lucky now, in that my life is not overly stressful, but it has been in the past and I now know the importance of taking breaks regularly. I will switch off and take a break from life every now and then with a good holiday.  


Also, talking and communication are key. Just getting it off your chest is good - if you hold onto things in your head, it’s harder. I find that being honest, by saying ‘I’m feeling a bit crap today and I feel a flare-up coming on’ does help a lot. People then understand that you’ve got to take a step back and respect your limits. Saying ‘no’ is a hard thing to learn, but it’s crucial. You have to be a little bit selfish every now and again and find that boundary when to give out that energy to others, and when to top it up for yourself. 


Get involved 

To support Karen in fundraising on behalf of Arthritis Ireland, to help fund our vital services, such as our helpline and free courses, such as the Living Well with Arthritis course that Karen attended, please visit her fundraising page here 


If you or someone you know is interested in walking, jogging or running the Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon (taking place on Sunday 2nd June this year) on behalf of Arthritis Ireland, visit our mini marathon page here to find out more.  


If you’re interested in attending one of our 6-week Living Well with Arthritis courses, (held both online or in-person): book your place here 


If you are newly diagnosed, or currently struggling with the challenges of arthritis, please ring our helpline on freephone 0818 252 846. 

Karen’s Training Programme  

“At the moment (March 2024), I’m doing two days of jogging (four minutes of jogging followed by a one- or two-minute walk),” Karen says, “And then I just repeat that a few times. At the weekend, I’ll do a longer one, which could be 10 minutes of jogging, walk for 5 and then jog again for another 10. I’m also doing my strength training in the gym around three times a week and I teach a few spin classes. It’s all very achievable.”