Is riding your bike good for arthritis?

Sacramento woman battles rare form of arthritis on two wheels

Some mornings, it’s all Charis Hill can do to pull herself from her bed. At the worst of times, the pain keeps her there all day.

The 27-year-old lives with a rare form of arthritis, called ankylosing spondylitis, that causes sometimes debilitating pain in the joints—especially the back—and weakens the immune system. The disease may worsen over time, slowly improve or do neither.

Hill has hardly let A.S. bring her down. She is training for a 200-mile team-relay run in September, goes backpacking and cycles to work. In part, she has a medication called Enbrel—which she injects weekly into her leg—to thank. It suppresses the inflammation and pain.

But nothing, perhaps, keeps Hill alive in spirit like riding a bicycle.

Even on days when walking through her bedroom and kitchen cause agonizing pain, cycling invigorates and actually reduces inflammation and subdues the pain.

“Some days it hurts just to lift my leg over the bike, but once I’m moving, I feel better almost immediately,” she said.

Hill can’t always go very far. Her daily commute to work at the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates is just a mile-and-a-half each way, and a recent 30-mile ride pushed Hill to her very limit. Still, riding a bike is her miracle drug. She called cycling “freedom.”

Movement as a remedy for arthritis pain is not news to the medical world. Wade Balmer, a regional director with the Arthritis Foundation, said the act of moving can help strengthen and stretch muscles, which helps to support the joints and reduce pain. He said poor posture may also exacerbate the discomfort of arthritis.

“Exercise strengthens the muscles and ligaments around the bones and joints, thus putting less pressure on the actual joint/bone and translating into less pain,” Balmer said via email. He called exercise “a top-tier treatment for arthritis,” adding that it must be balanced with rest and medication.

Though Hill works for SABA, she isn’t as concerned about the political aspects of cycling as much as she is about the more personal ones.

“Almost no matter what kind of injury someone has, anyone can ride a bike,” she said. People with Parkinson’s disease, though they lose some control of their muscles, can ride a bike, Hill said. “People without legs can ride a bike.”

According to Balmer, about 50 million Americans suffer from arthritis, and fewer than 3 million have A.S. Hill wants to connect with these people, encouraging them through her story to remain active in spite of what can seem like a hopeless state of pain. Last winter, Hill launched a local support group for people with A.S. that meets on the second Thursday of each month.

For a person restricted in movement, Hill sees driving a car as a waste of time and opportunity. She wants to move, not be moved by a vehicle.

“Driving isolates you,” Hill said. “I’d rather spend my time doing something that improves health. The way I see it, I have a limited time in this world, and I don’t want to close myself away from the world around me by being in a car.”