I was diagnosed with arthritis in my 20s. Super-fun, right? Technically, I have Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), which primarily affects my spine but causes all of my joints to feel swollen, click-y, and achy. According to the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, AS is a complex, potentially debilitating disease that basically fuses your vertebrae. It’s chronic and lifelong. And if you google AS, you’ll see hundreds of pictures of people hunched over, totally incapable of walking. (A good rule of thumb: Never google anything ever).
In the past few years, I’ve really noticed my AS’s progression, mostly marked by profound stiffness—all of the freaking time, especially in the morning. It’s like I wake up super-glued to the bed, and when I move, all of my back bones are super-glued together. (I want to remind you that I am not 80 years old, I’m 31.)
When I finally stand up, it’s like ripping bone from bone, which, if that isn’t melodramatic enough, only gets better if I finagle myself into multiple positions on a yoga mat, trying to pry my body open. The key, any rheumatologist will tell you, is to always keep moving and keep exercising, in order to prevent the vertebra from fusing.
It’s like I wake up super-glued to the bed, and when I move, all of my back bones are super-glued together.
So when I say I needed to find an exercise regime that works, I don’t mean it in the “yoga bores me” or “SoulCycle is a cult” sort of way (although SoulCycle is 100 percent a cult). I mean it in the “I’m going to end up paralyzed if I don’t work out” sort of way.
I’d exercised a bunch. The elliptical was a favorite for a minute there because it’s lower impact than the treadmill, which makes me feel like all my bones might break immediately. But it gets kind of boring swinging away in one spot. I also really liked belly-dancing class because the music is amazing, my hips don’t lie (sorry, I had to), and it blends cardio and dance elements. But I couldn’t belly-dance every day. And everything else is fairly high-impact, so I’ve had to limit my kickboxing, pilates, and HIIT classes.
And then I went to Miami for a quick weekend vacation (from NYC) a few months ago. I’d been to Miami a dozen times, and every single time, I spent half my vacation swimming. I am an actual mermaid, it turns out. Laps, doggy-paddling, headstands—you name it. When I’m swimming, I feel much lighter, I move with grace, and my body isn’t screaming with pain. (Any good specialist will also tell you swimming is the number one exercise of choice for AS patients.) After I leave Miami, I always wish I had a pool back home, and this time I decided to do something about it.
Riding high on the after-glow of water’s benefits (excess weight dropped, joints well-oiled, feeling energized, strong, and flexible, and AS symptoms less noticeable), I decided to join the gym near my workplace simply for its 25-meter pool.
For the past month, I’ve been swimming almost daily—and it’s changed me. Instead of feeling like getting into and out of water is a chore (ahem, gym), I look at it as life-bettering fun-time. It’s literally healing me every time I get in. It’s buying me a future free from disability and endless pain, but more so, it’s given me back a sense of connection to my body.
When I’m swimming, I feel much lighter, I move with grace, and my body isn’t screaming with pain.
It used to be that I was just dealing with this chronic illness silently. It was me against It. Regular swimming has changed that. Now I look at It as a friend who I must take to the doctor, and it just so happens that the doctor is water. Instead of thinking about how weight gain impacts my joints or how I’m weak during yoga class because my wrists can’t hold me up, I think about how every time I get into the water I get stronger, fast, more resilient.
At first, I could do one lap. One. I was breathless, I was struggling through that horrific muscle burn. Then I did two laps without rest. Then four. Now I can do six. (Also, hello biceps, perkier butt, stronger abs, a flatter tummy, and greater lung capacity!) For me, that’s huge. It’s a process, it’s a ritual, it’s self-healing. And it requires a mental sacrifice; I have to give up all the fear and self-doubt and disconnect and commit to the water.
It’s literally healing me every time I get in.
That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles. I’ve learned that although water is low-impact, chlorine is rough on the lungs and the millions of flaps you do with your feet will totally strain your ankles if you don’t properly stretch. I have to realize that no, I cannot eat a box of pizza just because I went swimming today. I have to figure out how to share a lane with another swimmer without being fully annoyed by them or annoying them. I have to learn when my body is fatigued, because swimming is a full-body workout. I have to learn how to stay awake afterward, too, because swimming wipes you out (fun fact: you get super-tired because your body is using its energy trying to regulate your body temp). Not to mention the horror movie that is gym showers (let’s just say I do not attend a luxury gym).
I can never go back to not-swimming; wherever I go, I know I’ll need a pool. It’s not a vacation experience or a perk for me. It’s a necessity. That, and a swim cap, because four weeks of chlorine-soaked hair is not a cute look.