Exercises for Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a chronic (long-lasting) type of inflammatory arthritis. It mainly affects the spine, but it can also affect other joints, tendons, ligaments, vital organs, and the eyes. Stiffness and pain are the two most common symptoms.


What Is Ankylosing Spondylitis?

AS can be a very serious condition, especially when new bone forms and fills gaps between the vertebrae (small bones forming the spine). These areas will eventually become stiff and difficult to move and bend. This process may also affect the rib cage and cause lung and breathing problems. 

The Spondylitis Association of America (SAA) notes that “most people with spondylitis say they feel much better after exercise.” They recommend at least 5 to 10 minutes of exercise daily for people with AS.

The following exercises may help people with AS manage flexibility, improve strength, and reduce back pain and stiffness.

Spine Stretch

AS is known for shortening the spine and back muscles. Using a press-up method to strengthen the spine can lessen shortening, reduce back pain, and improve muscle strength.

To stretch the spine, lie on your stomach with your legs behind you. Slowly prop up with your elbows, pulling your chest off the ground. If possible, straighten the arms as if you are doing a push-up. Hold for at least 10 seconds and for no more than 20 seconds. Repeat up to five times once daily.

Yoga will train your body to be flexible
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Standing Posture

This exercise is best done in front of a full-length mirror. Stand with heels about 4 inches away from a wall. Shoulders and buttocks should be as close to the wall as possible. Stand straight and tall and hold the position for five seconds. Relax and repeat 10 times. Check your posture in the mirror and aim to stand straight and tall.

Wall Sitting

This exercise helps strengthen muscles in the back, shoulder, neck, buttocks, and hips. Start by standing with your back against a wall. Feet should be shoulder-width apart and away from the wall.

Slide the back slowly down the wall to the point where the thighs are parallel to the floor, as if in a sitting position. Hold the position for 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat up to five times. Try this exercise at least 3 times a week.

Leg Raises

Use a chair or railing for support with this exercise.

Standing, keep your back straight and slightly bend your knees. Slowly lift one leg to the side a few inches off the ground, then lower it back down. Make sure you are maintaining good posture. Bring that same leg back up behind you in a 45-degree angle and hold for a few seconds. Avoid bending over or leaning forward.

Repeat 10 times for each leg. Do this exercise up to 5 times a week.

Chin Tucks 

Chin tucks can help strengthen the neck and loosen stiffness. For comfort and support, tuck a small rolled up towel under the neck.

Lie on your back without lifting your head. Tuck your chin towards your chest. Hold the position for up to 10 seconds. Repeat this exercise up to 5 times a couple of times a day.

Shoulder Rolls

Shoulder rolls require you to stand or sit tall. It is important to keep the spine as straight as you can, without discomfort.

Gently shrug the shoulders towards the ears and move back down. If you are doing this exercise right, you will feel a tug in the upper back. Take a 5-second break between shoulder shrugs and repeat up to 10 times.

This is an easy exercise that can be done daily and without changing your routine. Try while sitting at your desk and stand up and stretch your legs afterward. 

Corner Stretch

Stand in a corner facing forward. Open your arms up, extend them across your chest, and rest the palms of your hands on the wall. Gently press the chest forward toward the corner. This stretch should be felt in the chest and upper arms.

Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. Take a short 10-second break and try up to five times, once daily.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing will expand and improve lung capacity and keep the rib cage flexible. Several times daily, try taking several deep breaths. Pull the air deep into your chest as you inhale. Exhale slowly.

Cardio Exercises

Swimming is a great way to increase the flexibility of the spine, neck, shoulders, and hips. It is also easier to do aerobic exercises in a pool.

Walking, running, and cycling are also easier exercises for people with AS. Try to get in 30 or more minutes a day. It is okay to start with only 5 or 10 minutes daily. It all adds up and you will get stronger and able to do more with time. For certain people with advanced AS and with stiff spines, running and road cycling may not be safe activities.

Always check with your healthcare professional to determine which exercises are best for you.

Safety Tips

Don't try to do too much at once—it's alright to start small to make sure you stay safe! Also, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Don’t perform any exercises that cause pain. A little mild soreness afterward may be alright, but don't overdo it.
  • Talk to your doctor if you want to do high-impact exercises, like running, or exercises that require lots of twisting, like racquetball. You may be able to do these types of exercises, but caution is advised.
  • If you are having a flare, you may not be able to perform your normal exercise routine. Listen to your body and check in promptly with your healthcare professional.
  • If you are just starting an exercise program, start slowly. You can increase the frequency and intensity of your exercise over time if you are feeling alright.
  • Are there exercises you used to love that now cause you pain? Ask your doctor or physical therapist if they can recommend any modifications. 

A Word From Verywell

It is a good idea for everyone, including people with AS, to make exercise part of their daily schedule. Start out with the easiest exercises for shorter periods and ease into harder ones for longer times.

Of course, don’t overdo it. If exercise is making your symptoms worse, stop exercising and talk to your doctor. It is also important to consult with your doctor anytime you start a new exercise program.

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