woman with metal screws for joints getting ready to run

How My Chronic Illness Changed My Relationship With Exercise

To many people, exercise is a hassle — something that we should do, but don’t really want to. It’s a discomfort we must endure to maintain health and a good physique. We are all guilty of groaning about going to the gym, complaining about making time for exercise, or stating it plainly: “I hate working out.” But since I developed ankylosing spondylitis, my view on exercise has completely changed.

From athlete to walking with a limp

I grew up an athlete — figure skating, playing soccer, and working out with ease. Then, at the age of 18, my active lifestyle was put on hold by an autoimmune disease that came out of nowhere. I went from moving my body however I wanted to walking with a limp. Exercise was no longer painful in the sense that it burned my muscles and accelerated my heart rate — it was genuinely painful, my joints screaming at me to stop. I was angry. I was angry that it didn’t matter whether or not I felt like exercising that day — my illness said “no”. This fuelled me with a determination to keep going — exercising, skating, and moving — despite the challenges. Now that I live with chronic pain, I have more motivation to exercise than ever before.

Rest is rust

My relationship with exercise has changed in two major ways because of AS. There is a saying among those with arthritis: “rest is rust”. And it’s true — lying or sitting down for too long causes my pain to spike. Exercise is an effective way to reduce symptom severity and limit disease progression.

While the act of exercising itself is painful and not possible without medication, I see exercise as one of the few ways that I can control this illness. If I exercise regularly, I notice an overall improvement in my symptoms. Of course, exercise was important for my health before, but since I got AS, it is also a necessity for pain management. This change is one of the two reasons why I exercise more now than ever before. Unless I want to rust into an arthritic tin-man, I have no choice but to move.

Exercise is something I get to do

The other change in my relationship with exercise is that it is no longer something I have to do, but something I get to do. While I mentioned that I try to exercise frequently to combat my symptoms, there are still days when I’m in too much pain to even get out of bed — never mind exercise. On a Monday I might be able to run, jump, and stretch with ease, but come Tuesday, my AS could flare up and cause me horrible pain. On these days, I am reminded that I am lucky every day that I can exercise.

Before I developed AS, I did not appreciate how fortunate I was to exercise pain-free, whenever I wanted. It now seems silly that I ever complained about working out before — if only I had known that exercise is a privilege that not everyone has. Flare ups and high pain level days make me truly grateful for the days that my pain is low enough to exercise, which has led me to do so more frequently.

Moving in new ways

For those reasons, I no longer see exercise as a hassle and my motivations for staying active have changed. Now, I see exercise as a method of managing my symptoms and something I am fortunate to be able to do. I have learned that moving free of physical pain is a gift, so when my pain is low enough, I take advantage of it. Although my body will never move the same way it did before AS, I am moving in new ways, appreciating every step I take. I refuse to rust.

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