Alicia Arden

She makes no bones about: Alicia Arden is a diva in spandex. Nearly every day, she stretches on the Lycra and with perfectly coiffed hair leaves work and heads to the gym, where she works out for two hours to ease her rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms and fight for her life, she says.

But she wasn’t always so committed to improving her health. The Warrenton, Va., resident, who also has epilepsy, was severely overweight when she was diagnosed with RA in 2008. Barely able to walk due to the pain in her knees, hips and right shoulder, it took a hard dose of reality from her doctors to motivate her: Lose the weight or slowly die, they told her.

Alicia joined Weight Watchers and shed 50 pounds. Then she gained it back. In 2011 she started aquatic exercise classes. She stuck with it, slowly increased her workouts and hired a personal trainer and nutritionist. “Within one year I lost 102 pounds and I have not stopped,” she says.

In addition to exercise and a healthy diet, Alicia also controls her RA with two disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs and keeps her epilepsy in check with other medications.

On the eve of her 50th birthday, we chatted with Alicia about her experiences and the moxie that has motivated her to drop more than 10 dress sizes.

Q: How has arthritis affected you?

A: I had to fight for my life. When I first got sick I could only go up and down the stairs once a day. My husband reminds me every day, “I remember you couldn't even walk up the stairs without breathing hard.” I knew I was dying. I can now walk up and down the stairs with no problems. I have more energy than I can even offer!

Q: What’s your weight-loss secret weapon?

A: It’s no secret. One: drinking plenty of water. Two: You have to get seven to eight hours of rest. Three: You have to exercise. Four: You have to eat the right food. And stick with it.

Q: How has your life improved since you’ve lost weight?

A: Oh my gosh! I have confidence. After retirement [in 2016] I want to go into fitness and I want to start an active-wear clothing line [for plus-size women]. When I started working out, and with the size I was – about a 34 – I couldn’t find anything to wear. I said, “This isn’t fair. I’m a diva.” I didn’t care how big I was, I wanted to look good!

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10, how has your pain changed?

A: My pain was like a 20. Right now, it’s like 0.0. On days when it’s rainy or cold, then it’s like a 2, but it doesn’t stop me from working out.

Q: What do you do when you feel like you can’t exercise?

A: I’ll be honest, there are days when I’m like, “Do I have to go?” But I still go, even on days when my body is swollen and my joints are achy or it’s a rainy day. I pop an extra ibuprofen and let the instructor know, “I’m not me today, so let’s not get crazy.” But I still push myself and I go.

Q: Ever have reservations about working out due to your weight?

A: I didn’t care how I looked. I was on a mission. Honestly, there were times I couldn’t even put my legs up in the air. I was the biggest thing in the pool and I did not care. I just thought I have got to exercise to get this weight off. My hair was done and my makeup was on, but the thing was, I did not care. And you’re right; people are judging you. But you know what? As big as I was, I was in the front of the class and made sure I learned and understood. Don’t pass judgment on yourself or others. You do only what your body can do.

Q: What got you through the grueling workouts?

A: Even when I felt like there’s no way I can do this – “I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” I would say to myself, because you feel like you’re alone and there’s no way you can get going – but you can, you really can. But you have to make that commitment; you have to make that decision. Even back when I regained the 50 pounds, I never stopped.