A man with axial spondyloarthritis is stretching while others surround him, point, and laugh.

AxSpA Forced Me To Adapt My Exercise

Long before my diagnosis of nr-AxSpA, I started pushing myself to get in better shape. I was carrying a few extra pounds and had done myself a disservice by poorly rehabbing previous injuries.

So, I decided to improve my physical health; refereeing hockey was my motivation.

I started reffing

After graduating from university, I moved back to my hometown and rekindled my love for hockey through reffing. I was mostly working recreation youth games at first, but I quickly found myself moving up the ranks into more and more competitive hockey.

Last season was my first as a referee in the British Columbia Hockey League. It's as elite a level as amateur hockey gets in Canada. Our league had about 170 players earn scholarships to universities and colleges across Canada and the United States.

Our mandate is to be as fit as the players. Yet, a new problem arose. The better my fitness became, the worse I felt.

I was sore for days

I would work out on Monday or Tuesday and still feel sore for my game on Friday or Saturday. Multiple hours of travel are often required for games, and upon my return home I would struggle to get up the stairs.

Throughout my diagnosis process, I was repeatedly told how important exercise is key to managing AxSpA, but I thought I was doing a good job of it. I had no concept of how my approach to fitness and exercise would need to adapt.

Finding new ways to exercise

Once I realized I was doing more harm than good, I began a process of trial and error. It was a process of elimination to figure out which activities caused me pain, tightness, and discomfort.

A typical fitness regime had become unbearable and I had to start over from scratch. Slowly, I began to figure out things that worked and others that didn’t.

No more running on pavement, no more lifting weights, no more activities with continuous repetitive motions (i.e. stationary biking).

Yoga, body-weight workouts, and low impact cardio activities like cross-country mountain biking and, most importantly, skating have become my go-to activities.

Preparation

I also need to warm up properly. My peers give me a lot of flack for my preparation routine, but it’s imperative for me to get through a game.

I have developed a dynamic stretching routine that takes about 10 minutes I go through religiously before any type of activity, but especially before a game. It looks completely goofy, hence the friendly jabs, but it allows me to limber up and identify parts of my body that might be feeling particularly stubborn on that particular day so I can give those areas extra attention.

How has exercise changed for you since diagnosis?
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Recovery

Recovery is equally important as preparation.

I bought a small hand-held roller that I use on my legs after every game to relax the muscles. It’s a small thing, but I haven’t had an issue getting up the stairs when I get home since I started using it.

Sleep is also important for recovery. I used to be the guy to take every assignment possible. I’ve had to learn to mix in my rest because fatigue is a crippling factor when living with AxSpA. Overloading my schedule prevents me from being at my best.

It’s still a continuous learning process and I’m often testing new ideas to see how my body will react. I’m committed to one particular goal no matter how my disease progresses: AxSpA will not stop me from performing at my best.

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