Aerobic exercises increase the body’s need for oxygen when performing certain movements. It may seem illogical to do anything movement-based if you have back pain. However, the right aerobic exercises may strengthen muscles that support the spine enough to ease stress on vertebrae, discs, and structures like the sciatic nerve that starts in the lower back. Low-impact aerobic exercises like the ones suggested below increase circulation to promote healing and work important muscle groups.
1. Exercise Walking
Associated with numerous health benefits ranging from enhanced mood to better balance and coordination, walking is a simple physical activity just about anyone can do anywhere. “Exercise walking” is done at a faster pace than casual walking, and it’s beneficial since it’s not as jarring to the spine as jogging, yet it’s vigorous enough to strengthen soft tissues and increase circulation to the spine’s spongy discs. As your muscles become conditioned, resistance can be added with ankle weights. Avoid unintentionally stressing your spine while walking by:
- Maintaining posture (head up, neck, shoulders, and back relaxed, abdominal muscles slightly tightened, and arms swinging freely)
- Rolling your feet smoothly from heel to toe
- Wearing supportive, comfortable shoes
- Doing a warm-up with “normal walking” before working up to a faster pace
2. Elliptical Exercises
When you have back pain, the motions associated with walking, jogging, running, and climbing steps may sometimes place stress on the wrong parts of your spine. If this applies to you, an acceptable alternative may be doing similar movements on an elliptical machine.
Most machines allow you to adjust resistance and the length of your stride. Some also have incline settings, which can ease pressure on certain back-supporting muscles. Because your feet will be on pedals, you won’t have any impact from your movements radiating upward to your lower back. To get optimal results from elliptical training when you have back pain:
- Do 5-10 minutes of gentle back stretches to warm up
- Set the resistance level to a lower setting until you build up core strength
- Work different lower and upper body muscle groups with each session to better target soft tissues that support different parts of your spine
3. Stationary Biking
Stationary bikes are designed to mimic the motions of real-world biking in a way that’s more stable and controlled. Base the type of stationary bike you use and its settings on your source of back pain. For instance, if you have discomfort from spinal stenosis, you may feel better when leaning forward, and you would likely benefit from an upright stationary bike that urges your body to lean forward and gives you the option to shift to standing position. If, on the other hand, you need more support in your lower back, a recumbent model with adjustable reclining positions may be better for you.
Classes can be a fun way to enjoy stationary biking. Check with your doctor or a Los Angeles spine surgeon to see if a spin class is right for you. Should this type of high-intensity cycling be too stressful for your spine, opt for stationary bicycling at your local gym instead.
4. Water-Based Exercises
Because of water’s natural buoyancy, exercises that take place in water are often easier to do than the same ones done on land. If you’re new to water aerobics or it’s been a while since you’ve been swimming, consider taking a class. Many sessions take place in heated pools, which also increases circulation to the back. Water-based activities that may safely work your core muscle groups include:
- Resistance exercises with a kickboard
- Deep-water walking (with hand weights, if you want to add resistance)
- Leg exercises with a pool noodle
- Water aerobics classes (exercises usually include walking, leg lifts, bicep curls, and kickboard movements)
*If you have upper back and/or neck pain, swim with side or back stokes rather than front strokes.
The general recommendation for most people with back pain is to aim for about 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3-5 times a week. If you have severe pain or you are recovering from spine surgery, it’s better to start off with low-intensity options for short durations until strength and stability increase. Your doctor can provide specific recommendations for aerobic activities likely to be effective and safe for your spine-related issues.
Exercising can be beneficial for people living with chronic back pain, but it isn’t always the be-all end-all solution. In some cases surgery may be needed, ranging from total disc replacement to ALIF. Los Angeles patients should get in touch with The Spine Institute today at 310-828-7757 to schedule an in-person evaluation.