Want to improve your fitness level but afraid your bad back will keep you on the sidelines – or in your easy chair? Luckily, there are plenty of back-friendly cardio exercises that are safe for back pain sufferers, according to Praveen Kadimcherla, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Atlantic Spine Center.
It’s simply untrue that those with spinal problems shouldn’t exercise, Dr. Kadimcherla says, although they would be wise to choose low-impact aerobic activities that don’t aggravate the spine. Elevating the heart rate for at least 20 minutes at each session is what’s needed to improve heart and lung strength, burn excess calories and accomplish noticeable changes in fitness levels.
“Some patients with a history of back pain can participate in vigorous exercises such as running and step aerobics, but many find it just as rewarding to do cardio work that isn’t as taxing on the spine,” says Dr. Kadimcherla, who is fellowship-trained in orthopedic and spine neurosurgery. “The most important thing is that they do stay active, since it’s best for spine health.”
Why cardio is good for our backs
How does cardio or aerobic exercise benefit our backs? According to Dr. Kadimcherla, cardio:
- Increases blood flow to back structures, which supports healing.
- Decreases stiffness in the back and joints that leads to back pain.
- Results in fewer episodes of lower back pain
- Helps back pain sufferers stay functional – working and moving freely about – when discomfort does strike.
- Improves the ability to control weight gain, reducing stress on the spine and its joints.
- Increases production of endorphins, natural painkilling chemicals produced by the body after sustained exercise that can lower the need for pain medication.
Tips on the best back-friendly cardio exercises
According to Dr. Kadimcherla, the best aerobic exercises for those with back problems are both low-impact and minimize twisting, which can severely strain vulnerable muscles surrounding the spine. These cardio exercises include:
- Walking: Gentle on the back, walking several miles two to three times per week offers an effective bump in fitness while not requiring any equipment beyond a good pair of shoes.
- Swimming: We feel weightless in the water for good reason: the buoyancy of water counteracts gravity, which can compress the spine and lead to back pain. Swimming and other water exercises – including water aerobics and aqua jogging – provide cardiovascular conditioning that’s minimally taxing on the spine. “Those whose lower back pain is aggravated by swimming laps often find that the backstroke or breaststroke are well-tolerated,” Dr. Kadimcherla points out.
- Stationary bicycling: Whether upright or recumbent-style, stationary biking has become very popular in the form of “spinning” classes at the gym. “Many are recognizing the benefits of this lower-impact form of exercise,” Dr. Kadimcherla says.
- Elliptical trainers: Since the pedals on elliptical trainers move in a continuous oval motion – as opposed to pushing off from a hard surface – this form of aerobic exercise is inherently low-impact and back-friendly, Dr. Kadimcherla says. This type of machine also provides resistance training and is particularly effective at strengthening the legs and hips.
“There are so many cardio exercise options that are safe for back pain sufferers,” Dr. Kadimcherla says, “that there’s almost no excuse for not staying physically fit.”