Ankylosing spondylitis patient advocate Steff Di Pardo in front of stylized illustration of leaves and light pink backgroundShare on Pinterest
Photography courtesy of Steff Di Pardo; Design by Alyssa Kiefer

My name is Steff Di Pardo. I’m a 25-year-old author and advocate with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), living just outside of Toronto, Canada.

In May 2021, I partnered with Healthline for a 1-month Health Makeover. They connected me with experts in movement, sleep, and stress to help me build healthy habits surrounding my illness.

I chose to focus on these parts of my life because they were what I needed help with every day.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I, like many others, have lost sight of some of my goals and routines.

A big frustration of mine with being chronically ill is the loss of control. I can’t always do the things that I want to do, when I want to do them. I also can’t do a lot of the things that I used to be able to do before I got diagnosed with AS, but none of this is in my control.

For this Health Makeover, I felt that if I built some routine and healthy habits into my life, I would get that sense of control back and feel better overall.

My goals when starting this monthlong project were:

  • build routine in my life
  • spend more time offline
  • have a clearer mind
  • get back in mental and physical shape
  • learn how to work out with chronic fatigue
  • gain my motivation back

I met with Dr. Marney White, an expert on sleep and stress, first. Dr. White is a clinical psychologist and professor of public health and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.

She asked me about my background and, based on my experiences and needs, gave me a lot of tips on how to improve my sleep and stress levels at home.

Some of her tips included:

  • Remove any pets from the bedroom while sleeping, since pets can cause sleep disturbances.
  • Stay off devices with screens within 2 hours of bedtime.
  • Use blue light blocking glasses in the evenings while on screens.
  • Keep consistent bedtimes and wakeup times.
  • Save bed just for sleep — no working or scrolling on social media.

Read more about Dr. White’s recommendations for mental self-care while living with AS.

One of my initial challenges was keeping my cat, Cora, out of the bedroom at night. Cora has become a huge source of comfort for me while coping with AS and the thought of not letting her sleep with me was very anxiety-inducing.

Saving my bed for sleep was also an initial worry of mine. I live with pretty severe chronic fatigue as a result of my AS, so I spend a lot of my time in bed most days. This time isn’t necessarily spent sleeping, but just resting. Sitting in office chairs and even on couches can cause me pain.

The best part about being given a bunch of options, though, was that I could try the ones that felt right for me.

After our meeting, I was excited to build some routine back into my life and focus more on the things that made me happy and smile every day.

With the stress of the world lately, I feel like a lot of us need to remember the small things that make us happy and try to do them as often as possible.

Self-care supplies including journal, blue light blocking glasses, and sleep mask in front of stylized illustration of leaves and light pink backgroundShare on Pinterest
Photography courtesy of Steff Di Pardo; Design by Alyssa Kiefer

Next, I met with Julia Juhas, a yoga instructor and my movement professional for the Health Makeover. Juhas also lives with AS, which was very comforting for me to hear.

Some of her tips included:

  • Write an affirmation on a sticky note every evening and stick it to a glass of water next to your bed. Every morning, read the affirmation to yourself and drink the glass of water. She called this “watering the seed.”
  • Get on your workout mat every morning and practice some form of movement as a healthy way to start the day.
  • Focus on small movements that feel good, especially if you’re feeling stiff.

As I learned more from Juhas, I was so excited to get my morning routine back, have more time to self-reflect during my days, and build my stamina back. With chronic fatigue, it’s not often that I actually feel like being active.

I struggle a lot with being kind to myself when I’m either in too much pain or too tired to practice yoga, so I decided to focus a lot of my journals in the evenings on self-reflection and self-love.

I decided to make a nightly checklist with some of the tips that Dr. White and Juhas gave me, so I could make sure I was keeping up with them.

My nightly checklist was:

  • Wear blue light blocking glasses.
  • Turn off my space heater before bed.
  • Journal before bed.
  • Turn off screens 2 hours before bed.
  • Aim for an earlier bedtime (my usual bedtime when starting this project was between 2 and 3 a.m.).
  • Wear a sleep mask to bed.
  • Use a meditation app.
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My expert consultants and I also talked about stress and came up with a list of self-care activities to focus on daily and weekly.

Some of the self-care activities I chose were:

  • Listen to or watch comedy media.
  • Spend time with Cora outside.
  • Go biking.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Practice gratitude exercises and affirmations.
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The first 2 weeks of my Health Makeover were the most difficult. I had to start from scratch and work my way up to new healthy habits.

Mornings were full of tiredness and stiffness, and in the evenings it was difficult to turn off my computer and actually get to bed at the time I set for myself.

However, the checklists helped me a lot during the first 2 weeks — and still do!

I always kept them visible, otherwise I’d have forgotten about them completely. I also kept my journals out on my bedside table, along with a pen and sticky notes for my affirmations.

Around the 3-week mark, the habits really started to stick. Upon reflecting, I realized I’ve kept a lot of the habits that Dr. White and Juhas taught me during the Health Makeover project!

I feel a lot more motivated to move around, even when I’m fatigued. I’ve stuck to a good sleep routine and have been getting to sleep around 10 to 11 p.m. most nights.

I also feel a lot lighter mentally and more productive, even on the days when I can’t do much. On those tough days, the self-care activity checklist helps me feel like I’m still accomplishing something, which I am — taking care of yourself is productive.

Healthline also sent me a care package, including a white noise machine, a yoga block and strap, and a Fitbit to help me track my movement and sleep! All these resources really helped me build and stick to my new habits.

My journaling has been full of self-love prompts, my body gets more movement every day, and my sleep has been more restful lately. Not to mention my stress levels were more controlled during the Health Makeover than they were throughout the whole year prior.

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Photography courtesy of Steff Di Pardo; Design by Alyssa Kiefer

The Health Makeover has been everything I needed and more. I was stuck in an endless rut of staying up too late, sleeping in, and staying in the same place physically and mentally.

Now I sleep better, I wake up earlier, I move more, and I’m able to find more joy in my days.

I’m going to stick to the habits that I’ve formed during this past month — and that doesn’t mean I have to stop there. I always like to start small with what I do and add on bigger challenges later. Who knows what healthy habits I’ll form next!

Steff Di Pardo is a freelance writer living just outside of Toronto, Canada. She’s an advocate for those living with chronic and mental illnesses. She loves yoga, cats, and relaxing with a good TV show. She shares information on her AS experiences on her Instagram and YouTube channel.