When your illness is your superpower

Always in love with exercise, Sasha Douglas was shattered to contract a chronic illness. But now that illness is an asset.

Sasha Douglas

Contracting rheumatoid arthritis – a painful and incurable disease that is rare in one so young – taught Sasha what life is like in a body that isn’t in optimal health.

That's been an asset for the 25-year-old student who just graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Exercise Physiology. 

“It’s an extra point of connection with the people I’m treating,” she says, talking of prescribing exercise treatments for people with chronic conditions. “There’s an extra empathy.”

In love with exercise and fascinated by anatomy, Sasha was shattered to get her diagnosis in 2020. Pain in a shoulder, lack of movement in an arm, and “strange” swollen hands were signs that her body had turned against itself, the immune system attacking healthy tissue, leading to swelling and pain around joints.

She’d danced ballet from age four right through to the end of her high school years in Rotorua, played sport and was devoted to the gym.

“It was like the world was ending, my world just crumbled.” She remembers fleeing a gym class that was just too painful.

Familly supporters, from left: Rachel Richards, Vince Douglas with Locklan Douglas in front of him, Sasha, Cole Douglas, Gay Bache, Kevin Douglas and Janie Douglas.

By taking a holistic approach to her health, eating well and looking after her mental health, as well as taking methotrexate (an immune-system suppressant used in much larger doses in chemotherapy), Sasha now does most of the things she wants to, including the high-intensity training called F45.

She has managed the F45 studio in Glenfield and now coaches there.

“I can experience flare-ups sometimes when my symptoms worsen,” she says. “During these times, I take my training a lot easier and keep looking after myself well.”

For her diploma, Sasha treated people at a Department of Exercise clinic and at the private Optimize Health, where she is now employed, for conditions such as osteoporosis, stroke, and diabetes or after a heart attack or cancer treatment. Often, the exercise involves maintaining strength and working on balance.

Sasha had a false start to her Science degree, initially going for Biology before switching to Exercise Science.

“All of a sudden, I was getting great grades and loving what I was doing.”

Now, she loves improving the quality of life of people with chronic conditions.

“I'd like to thank my family and close friends for supporting me throughout my studies and my journey with rheumatoid arthritis,” she says. “I had amazing support throughout and couldn't be more thankful.”

Media contact

Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
M: 022 032 8475
E: paul.panckhurst@auckland.ac.nz