Everyone can benefit from the many health perks of exercise, but for people with ankylosing spondylitis—or at risk of developing it—exercise can be crucial for their quality of life. “Exercise is a really important part of treating ankylosing spondylitis, and maintaining good health in general,” says Themistocles Protopsaltis, MD, spine surgeon at NYU Langone Hospital.
Ankylosing spondylitis, or AS, puts a lot of stress on the spinal joints. It’s caused by attacks from the immune system, resulting in AS symptoms like inflammation and joint damage—and a lot of back pain. (Learn more about what ankylosing spondylitis is here.)
While exercise won’t cure AS, it can reduce the pain. “When you exercise … you’re improving your muscle mass, you’re improving your core strength, you’re increasing the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood so that the muscle will be healthier in response to a stressor … like ankylosing spondylitis,” says Dr. Protopsaltis.
When the muscles surrounding your spine are stronger, they take pressure off the joints, and they’re less likely to have aching spasms caused by the pain in the nearby joints, according to Dr. Protopsaltis.
Additionally, exercising with ankylosing spondylitis helps improve and preserve your joint mobility and range of motion. Regular stretching and yoga can be particularly effective at preserving joint mobility.
One of the best times to stretch may be after your morning alarm goes off. Stiffness tends to be at its worst in the mornings, and good stretches may help loosen up those joints and help you be more active the rest of the day.
Whatever type of exercise you choose, or time of day you squeeze it in, exercise for AS is so beneficial that it’s recommended to fit at least some physical activity into your schedule every single day, according to the Spondylitis Association of America.
Of course, exercise can be difficult when you’re already experiencing pain and stiffness in your back. If this is the case, your first priority may need to be getting your symptoms under control with medications for AS. When the pain has subsided, you’ll be better able to begin an exercise program.
“It’s not a bad idea if you have ankylosing spondylitis to meet with your doctor and consider starting a physical therapy program,” says Dr. Protopsaltis. “The physical therapist can show core-strengthening exercises to improve the core muscles that support the spine and the joints, and then also to work on different stretching exercises and stretching regimens that can be done.”