Four Low-Impact Exercises for Spondies

Last updated: January 2023

It’s that time of year again when most of us not only think about making changes to our daily lives, but we also resolve to do so. But adding more exercise to our routines can be complicated for spondies. And while exercise is beneficial for axial spondyloarthritis (AxSpa), choosing the right exercises is critical to avoid increased joint pain.

Before my AxSpa diagnosis, I used to run. I was a basketball shooting guard, a soccer midfielder, and always enjoyed some tennis despite being horrendous at it. I grew up mountain biking miles and miles of wet, rocky New England trails. Now, my back does not hold up in that sideways 120 degree angle that bicycle riding requires. One of my favorite activities before diagnosis was kayaking, but I’ve yet to find a kayak set-up that doesn’t make my lower back writhe with pain.

It pains me to think of all the exercises I could be doing in a body free from AxSpA, but it doesn’t help anything thinking about what I would have, could have done. Instead, I collect low-impact exercises.

Here are some of my go-to low-impact exercises that help me burn calories, build muscle, and increase movement:

1. Walking or hiking

I prefer when exercise is fun, either as part of a sport or adventure. I’ll almost always pick exercise outdoors over exercise in a gym. Hiking has become my favorite exercise since my diagnosis, but I’m careful to select hiking trails that are not too strenuous.

Whether walking or hiking, I try to keep a decent pace but to not push myself to go too far. If I’m walking inconsistently, I have trouble exceeding three miles before the stiffness in my hips and lower back becomes unbearable. If I have a consistent routine, I can work up to doubling that mileage limit!

2. Yoga

One of the best exercises I’ve found for my AxSpa is yoga. Not only does yoga help build muscle (yoga can be intense!), but it stretches out my muscles and joints. Though there’s little research that shows stretching and physical therapy is useful in treating enthesitis, I find that stretching provides measurable pain relief in my joints. This is especially true of my lower back.

I am not yoga expert, so when I start a yoga routine I search for some beginner yoga videos on YouTube and follow along at home. One of the best yoga choices I’ve made is buying an extra thick yoga mat so I don’t experience more pain by simply laying on my back on the floor!

3. Swimming

I’ve had many healthcare providers recommend swimming as one of the best exercises for people with arthritis. While I don’t disagree, I also don’t love the idea of swimming in a public pool (not to mention the body insecurity I feel with AxSpA, especially in a bathing suit!).

With that said, swimming is excellent exercise for spondies because it reduces impact on the joints better than most other exercises out there. And while swimming is also one of the more inconvenient exercises if you don’t have a pool in your backyard, most cities have a swimming pool at the community center, local college, or gym.

4. Resistance band strength training

When I shift from cardio to strength training, I rarely do so with physical weights. Maybe this is me being overly cautious, but I don’t want to risk putting my joints under more strain than I need to. Now I’m no athletic trainer, but I do know that more muscle burns more calories. I don’t push my body too hard with any workout, and this is especially true when strength training. But I do like to add some light resistance band strength training into my workout routine.

I don’t pretend to be a trainer or workout expert. What I say here is a reflection of my own experience. It’s taken me years to figure out which exercises I can reasonably do with AxSpA without feeling worse during and after my workout. On occasion, I throw some tennis or basketball practice into the mix, but only on good days. Otherwise, I’ve found that the four exercises outlined here work best for my spondy body.

What exercises work best for your spondy body?

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