Safe Cardio for Back Pain Sufferers

Back PainExercises

Dr. Praveen Kadimcherla with Atlantic Spine Center offers tips on the best back-friendly cardiovascular exercises.

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.

Cardio exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, is any type of physical activity that increases the heart rate and promotes the circulation of oxygen throughout the body. Some examples of cardio exercise include walking, running, cycling, swimming, and dancing.

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."

Regular cardio exercise has many health benefits. Cardio exercise strengthens the heart and improves blood circulation, which can help to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. They can help to boost energy levels by increasing blood flow to the muscles and improving the body's ability to use oxygen. Such exercise can help to burn calories and promote weight loss, which is essential for back pain relief. Cardio exercise has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and boost self-esteem, as well as strengthen the immune system by increasing the production of antibodies and white blood cells. Cardio can help to improve the quality of sleep by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and increasing the amount of deep sleep.

All of the above influence longevity, which is why cardio exercise has been linked to a longer lifespan, as it can help to reduce the risk of various health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

It is recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio exercise per week. It is important to talk to a healthcare provider before starting any new exercise program.

The benefits of cardio for back pain

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.

Back-friendly cardiovascular 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. Walking is a low-impact exercise that can help to strengthen the muscles in the back and improve overall cardiovascular fitness. It is important to use good posture while walking and to wear comfortable, supportive 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. Swimming also helps to strengthen the muscles in the back and improve flexibility.
  • Stationary bicycling: Biking is another low-impact cardio exercise that can be beneficial for individuals with back pain. A stationary bike or a recumbent bike (which allows you to sit in a reclined position) may be more comfortable than an upright bike. 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: The elliptical trainer is a machine that combines elements of walking, running, and cycling. It provides a low-impact cardiovascular workout that is easy on the joints. 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.

It is important to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your cardio workouts as your fitness level improves. Listen to your body and stop if you experience any pain or discomfort.

"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."