Exercises for Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of inflammatory arthritis. It is chronic, which means it is a long-term condition. It usually affects the spine, but it may also affect tendons, ligaments, vital organs, joints, and eyes. Stiffness and pain are the two most common symptoms.

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What Is Ankylosing Spondylitis?

People with AS have inflammation in the vertebrae, which are the small bones in the spine. This can lead to scarring and ankylosis, or the formation of new bone. AS can be a very serious condition, especially when new bone fills the gaps between the vertebrae. 

Exercise often helps improve the symptoms of AS. The Spondylitis Association of America recommends at least 5 to 10 minutes of exercise daily for people with this condition.

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

Spine Stretch

Yoga will train your body to be flexible
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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.

Standing Posture

This exercise is best done in front of a full-length mirror. Stand with your heels about 4 inches away from a wall. Your 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.

Wall Sitting

Young man doing the wall sit exercise outdoors

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

Slide your back slowly down the wall to the point where your 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.

While 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. 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 your neck.

Lie on your back. Without lifting your head, tuck your chin towards your chest. Hold this 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 comfortably can.

Gently shrug your shoulders towards your ears and the move them back down. If you're doing this exercise right, you will feel a tug in your 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 without changing your routine. Try it while sitting at your desk. 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 repeat 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 Exercise

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 good cardio 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.

Keep in mind that for certain people who have advanced AS and/or stiff spines, running and road cycling may not be safe.

Always check with your healthcare provider to determine which exercises are best for you, especially if you want to do high-impact exercises or exercises that require lots of twisting, like racquetball.

You may be able to do these types of exercises, but your healthcare provider should advise you.

Exercise Safety for People With AS

Don't try to do too much at once. Starting small will help you stay safe. You can increase the frequency and intensity of your exercise over time.

Don’t do any exercises that cause pain. Some mild soreness afterward is normal, but if you feel anything other than mild soreness, you may be overdoing it.

If there are exercises you used to love that now cause you pain, ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist if they can recommend modifications. 

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 provider.

Summary

People with ankylosing spondylitis have inflammation in the vertebrae, which can lead to the formation of new bone. This can cause stiffness and loss of flexibility.

Exercises can help improve strength and relieve pain. Start with simple exercises and gradually build up to more challenging ones over time. Don't do any exercises that cause pain.

A Word From Verywell

It is a good idea for everyone, including people with AS, to make exercise part of their daily schedule. Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise program.

Start with the easiest exercises and do them for shorter periods of time. Ease into doing harder exercises for longer periods of time. Don’t overdo it. If exercise is making your symptoms worse, stop and talk to your healthcare provider. 

1 Source
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  1. Spondylitis Association of America. Exercise.

Additional Reading

By Lana Barhum
Lana Barhum has been a freelance medical writer since 2009. She shares advice on living well with chronic disease.