Understanding the Best Cardio for Back Pain Sufferers
Think you can prevent another “back attack” by staying in your comfy chair? Think again. The truth is that aerobic exercise that gets the body moving and heart pumping is better for back pain sufferers than being sedentary, according Interventional Pain Management Specialist Dr. Kaliq Chang, of Atlantic Spine Center.
It’s a common misconception that cardio isn’t back-friendly and that those with spinal problems shouldn’t exercise, Dr. Chang says. While certain high-impact cardio exercises don’t mix well with back pain – including running, weight-lifting or hard cycling – the vast majority of vigorous movement can only help most of those with a history of back pain.
“Research shows that moving our bodies energetically on a regular basis offers a host of benefits that not only don’t worsen back pain, but ease it and even prevent future episodes,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “We encourage those with lingering back issues to seek opportunities to gently but robustly move their bodies to help their spines.”
Why cardio helps
Why is cardio beneficial to the spine? Dr. Chang says it boils down to these key ripple effects:
- Promotes blood flow all over the body, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the spine in greater abundance.
- Eases stiffness that’s so common in muscles and joints around the spine.
- Boosts endorphins, natural pain-killing chemicals produced by the body after sustained exercise.
- Burns calories, helping to shed extra pounds that stress the spine and surrounding joints.
- Strengthens muscles surrounding the spine, preventing additional back injury.
“Stop worrying and wondering if exercise is a sensible thing to do if you have chronic back pain,” Dr. Chang says. “The science speaks for itself: Keeping your heart pumping with exercise is actually therapeutic for the spine.”
With low-impact cardio the best for back pain sufferers, what specific types of exercise fits the bill?
- Walking: Strolling is fine, but brisk walking is even better because it’s still gentle on the back while making your muscles, heart and lungs work a bit harder. Bonus points for the fact that walking is free – all you need is a clear sidewalk or track – and only a solid pair of shoes or sneakers is required. “Switch to a treadmill or large indoor space if the weather isn’t good,” Dr. Chang advises.
- Swimming: Being immersed in water is naturally spine-friendly since you’re weightless and untethered to gravity while swimming. “Hard surfaces are never a concern with swimming, and if you can enroll in a water aerobics class, all the better,” Dr. Chang says. “Alternate strokes if one stroke or another seems to bother your back. The breast stroke or back stroke are good ones to try.”
- Indoor bicycling: A stationary bike lets you reap all the cardio and spine benefits of cycling without the bumps and jostling typical of the road version, Dr. Chang notes. “You can also tailor your level of back support by choosing a bike that’s either upright or recumbent-style,” he adds.
- Elliptical trainer: Offering continuous movement of your legs and hips while moving in an oval motion, this is far better for the spine than pushing off a hard surface outdoors, Dr. Chang says. Resistance settings are also changeable, enabling you to customize your workout. Be cautious with the twisting movement of the arms or don’t use the arm portions at all.
“Any low-impact movements that raise your heart rate and minimize twisting and bending while improving overall fitness can be part of a back-friendly exercise regimen,” Dr. Chang says. “If in doubt, check with your doctor before embarking on any new exercise program. Above all, aim for exercises you can see yourself enjoying on a regular basis for a long time to come. Your spine will thank you.”