What is Aerobic Exercise and How Can it Benefit the Back


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 the heart pumping is better for back pain sufferers than being sedentary, according to Interventional Pain Management Specialist Dr. Kaliq Chang, of Atlantic Spine Center.

While applying heat or ice to an aching spot can relieve a painful symptom, as well as certain medications, electrical stimulation and other procedures, exercises and muscle release techniques can be used both as short-term pain relieving means and as a part of pain treatment and prevention. The goals of flexibility and strength exercises are to improve back and abdominal muscles, as well as help a person maintain a good posture. Aerobic exercises target the strengthening of the cardiovascular system and some large muscle groups.

Remember that in training regularity is key. So, it’s better to perform several exercises on a daily basis rather than have one intense workout once a month. Regular physical activity can also help you maintain a healthy body weight, which is quite important as excess weight increases the pressure on the spine and promotes pain.

It’s better to consult a doctor before starting the exercise program, but in most cases, patients are advised to perform low-impact aerobic activities and gentle stretching exercises. Aerobic activities boost heart health and increase blood flow to muscles and tissues. Stretching exercises improve flexibility in the spine, hips, and legs, which prevents strains and sprains. You can also try some core-strengthening exercises to work on abdominal and back muscles, that protect the spine.

What is aerobic exercise?

Aerobic exercise is a physical activity that increases blood pumping and forces large muscle groups to work. Such cardiovascular activity includes walking, swimming, running, cycling, and playing soccer. It is generally recommended to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week.

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.”

Aerobic exercise types

Recommended aerobic exercise includes low-impact and vigorous exercise.

Exercise walking is not your usual walking, as it has a faster pace. Such activity elevates heart rate, but it is more gentle than jogging. If you want to increase the intensity of this workout, add weights. A step machine or elliptical trainer is another great option, as it simulates jogging or walking up stairs. The main advantage of this option is the fact that you can adjust the resistance to get the most out of the workout.

Bicycling, especially stationary bicycling, is a good option if you’re not a huge fan of walking and are ready to purchase some sporting equipment or buy a gym membership.

Water aerobics and swimming combine some resistance and natural buoyancy. They allow you to have aerobic exercise with minimal impact on the spine.

We’ll cover each exercise in detail later, but you should know that walking and swimming are usually considered low-impact aerobic exercises, while aerobics, stepping and cycling are vigorous activities. You should keep this in mind and start with more beginner-friendly options.

Aerobic exercise benefits

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.”

Back-friendly exercises

With low-impact cardio the best for back pain sufferers, what specific types of exercise fit 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 are 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.”