More than any other type of arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis calls for a treatment plan that combines medication and appropriate exercise. Ankylosing spondylitis causes inflammation in the spine, resulting in scar tissue and calcification. Without proper care, the spine can stiffen, compromising mobility and increasing risk for spinal fractures.
Stiffness tends to worsen with inactivity and improve with regular low-impact physical activity, and while medication can reduce inflammation, exercise increases joint flexibility, improves posture, and reduces stiffness.
Exercise has the added benefits of supporting cardiovascular health and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol within normal range. It also increases bone density and reduces stress, so why not get moving?
The Spondylitis Association of America (SAA) recommends four types of exercise: range of motion, stretching, strengthening, and endurance (cardiovascular). All four types should be done regularly. Thanks to a pamphlet produced by SAA, you can easily plan and maintain a sensible exercise program.
While not what many would call “exercise,” posture control is important for people with ankylosing spondylitis. Better yet, it’s easy. Stand straight, with spine and neck aligned, and do this consciously many times a day. Breathing deeply is also beneficial not only for respiration but also for the way it expands the rib cage.
A posture-related exercise involves lying on the floor face down on a mat, head turned to one side. Hold that position for a minute or so, and then turn your head in the opposite direction and hold it for the same amount of time. The ultimate goal is 20 minutes.
Swimming is also an ideal exercise for those with ankylosing spondylitis, according to Brian R. Kaye, M.D., chief of the division of rheumatology, at Sutter East Bay Medical Foundation, Berkeley, and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Swimming is generally acknowledged to be an excellent exercise for patients with ankylosing spondylitis because of the excellent back flexion and extension that occurs without putting strain on the spine,” he advised.
For people who don’t swim, benefits can be achieved by gently stretching in a warm pool. Recreation centers may have group aquatic therapy sessions for people with arthritis. Call local athletic facilities to see if they have an aquatic program for people with joint problems, or follow the guidelines provided by the Arthritis Foundation.
People who prefer land-based exercise should ask their doctor before undertaking a low-impact exercise like gentle yoga, which involves stretching, bicycling, or walking. Dr. Kaye advises anyone with ankylosing spondylitis to avoid high-impact activities like contact sports and jumping on a trampoline, which could cause harmful spinal compression.
Maintaining an ideal body weight will reduce stress on the spine, so diet also plays a role in better health, according to Dr. Kaye.
“There are no nutritional factors that have been scientifically demonstrated in a double-blind fashion to improve or worsen the outcome in ankylosing spondylitis,” he advised. “Nevertheless, one should eat a healthy, well-balanced diet for general health.”
“Because we have much to learn about the effects of nutrition on ankylosing spondylitis, I would encourage patients to ‘listen to their body’ and avoid foods they feel make themselves worse on a consistent basis,” he said.
Listening to your body and giving it the exercise and nutrition it needs can go a long way to improve your quality of life, whether you’re living with chronic illness or not. If you have ankylosing spondylitis and are thinking of adding some of these exercises into your daily routine, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor first.
Judi Ebbert earned her PhD at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. She has worked at three NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers and is a writer/editor at Moffitt Cancer Center. Judi has great interest in chronic disease prevention and treatment, and is an advocate for equitable access to care and optimal quality of life for all people. She loves swimming, her dogs and cats, great food, art, humor, and cinematic thrillers. She’s on Twitter at Judi@judithebbert.