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Exercise Tips for Ankylosing Spondylitis

Updated on October 18, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
Anastasia Climan

It may not always be easy to maintain an exercise program when you’re dealing with spondylitis symptoms such as severe back pain or a limited range of motion, but staying physically active with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) can have a significant impact on your quality of life.

“Any exercise I can do always improves my pain and stiffness,” one MySpondylitisTeam member shared. “I would say we must keep as active as we possibly can, no matter how slow we may be.”

They're right, too. Exercise may be one of the most important parts of managing your condition. Inactivity can quickly lead to joint stiffness and fusion that promotes disease progression. It can be tempting to skip working out areas that are swollen or painful, but finding an appropriate exercise program that you can consistently perform for at least 20 minutes per day is a crucial part of your treatment plan.

Goals of Exercise

Everyone can benefit from physical activity, even if ankylosing spondylitis makes it more difficult at times. Some of the benefits of staying active with AS include:

  • Increased range of motion, flexibility, and mobility
  • Less pain and stiffness
  • Better quality of sleep
  • Higher breathing capacity
  • Improved posture
  • More balance

Watch rheumatologist Dr. Iris Navarro-Millán explain why exercise is important for people with spondylitis.

Exercise also offers mental and emotional benefits. Dealing with chronic pain isn’t just physically draining; it can also take a toll on your self-esteem and motivation. Exercise has mood-boosting effects and presents an opportunity to focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t. Setting small and realistic goals can help you stay on track and notice positive changes from exercise.

Exercises To Try With Ankylosing Spondylitis

Doing a variety of exercises can help you maintain a baseline level of fitness that’s necessary to keep up with daily activities. For example, incorporating some resistance exercise and stretching into a walking or swimming routine may offer more benefits than doing any of these options alone. Stretching may reduce your risk of injury and improve mobility, while strength training maintains strong muscles and bones.

Some exercises are unsafe and potentially harmful for people with ankylosing spondylitis. Always ask your doctor or physical therapist before starting an exercise program to make sure that your plan is right for you.

Resistance Training

Resistance training involves working your muscles through exercises such as weight lifting or body weight training. Modify basic moves like planks, lunges, squats, and push-ups to suit your level of fitness.

Activities like yoga build strength by moving your body against gravity. “I have found a lot of help for my hips by practicing yoga daily, and if I miss a day, I know it,” said one member.

Pilates and tai chi can also be good options. These types of low-impact exercises are ideal for protecting your joints and preventing injuries while engaging your muscles.

Helpful Stretches

Simple movements can be done daily to promote good posture to avoid slouching and strain. Try standing straight with your back against a wall and gently squeezing your shoulder blades together to help improve posture. You could also try a seated thoracic extension: Sit in a chair, clasp your hands behind your head, and slowly stretch your upper back over the top of the chair.

Ask a qualified trainer or physical therapist to supervise and guide you through stretches and movements that you can do at home.

Deep Breathing

Your breathing muscles can also benefit from regular exercise to avoid the gradual chest tightness that can occur with ankylosing spondylitis. Learn how to do deep breathing exercises and set a reminder to do them daily. Aside from expanding your lung capacity, deep breathing is a great way to relax your body. Try breathing exercises first thing in the morning or as part of your routine before bed.

Exercises To Avoid With Ankylosing Spondylitis

Not all forms of exercise are safe or appropriate for people with AS. Most experts advise staying away from:

  • Contact sports such as martial arts or basketball
  • Exercises that require you to twist and bend your midsection
  • High-velocity workouts such as interval training, sprinting, or boot camp classes
  • Workouts that challenge your balance, heart rate, or posture excessively

See a trained physical therapist for an individualized exercise prescription that takes into account the degree of inflammation and damage to your back or other joints.

Staying Active With Spondylitis

Many members of MySpondylitisTeam have shared their best physical activity tips, including moving in the water. “I do my stretching and pelvic thrusts while in my Epsom bath,” said one member. “The warmth of the water eases stretching.” Another shared, “I do some stretches in the shower or bath. I have bursitis in my hips, but I find if I stretch them every day, it is better.”

Others have found ways to modify their exercise to suit their needs. “Instead of planking on the floor, lay your forearms against a door!” said one member about their modified push-ups. “Start slowly with your feet close to the door, and do your push-up, gradually moving your feet out a little more every day. This works your core just as well with no struggling on the floor!”

Some members make movement a regular part of their day rather than working out. “I walk when the weather permits. I move constantly, starting from the time my feet hit the floor. I can’t sit and watch a movie without getting up and moving around. It’s the only way I can keep from getting stiff.”

Don’t let AS stop you from reaping the benefits of physical activity. With a little bit of creativity and patience, you can find a program that works for you.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MySpondylitisTeam is the social network for people with spondylitis. On MySpondylitisTeam, more than 71,500 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with spondylitis.

How do you stay active with ankylosing spondylitis? Share your tips in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on MySpondylitisTeam.

A MySpondylitisTeam Member said:

This is what I have done. However the pain never goes away, jus less. It is so difficult to get pain meds because of the abuse by some people. I am going to ask my doctor for 750 Norco. Right now on… read more

posted 10 days ago

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Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Anastasia Climan is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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