In our quest to stay in shape and keep our hearts healthy, we often struggle to choose exercise that our bodies can physically support. If you have back issues, running or jogging are probably off the table. What can you do to break a sweat but not your back?
“Exercise can be one of the best and most effective ways to help people manage and even prevent future back pain,” says Kristin Schulz, a physical therapist with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Fortunately, there are a variety of low-impact exercise programs and equipment to help people with back issues remain active and in shape.”
Incorporating a strengthening program targeting core muscles further prepares your back for the following four cardio workouts.
Spinning on an indoor bike or cycling outdoors are great high-intensity cardio options for people with back pain. Adjust your bike to fit your body’s needs, maintain good posture and keep your abdominals engaged. Listen to your back to determine how far to lean over, and avoid rocking your hips or shrugging your shoulders while cycling. To ease into a cycling workout, a stationary recumbent bicycle provides more back support and a less intense workout, and helps you work up your way to spinning or cycling.
- Aquatic exercise
For individuals with more severe back pain, aquatic exercise can have tremendous benefits. The unique properties of the water allow for minimal stress on the joints and the spine. Aqua jogging — running with your legs underwater — can be highly effective for a higher-level workout, as well as pain relief. If you prefer swimming, freestyle and backstroke are typically the safest strokes, as they prevent your back from arching as much as butterfly and breaststroke.
- Walking outside or on a treadmill
Schulz says you can still achieve a great workout using a treadmill or walking outside. “One way to maximize either workout is to add interval training,” she says. “Adding a brisk walk for as little as 10 to 30 seconds at a time, then recovering at a regular pace can have great results.” On the treadmill, she recommends slowly increasing the incline setting, as accommodating the uphill movement can be tough on back pain.
- Elliptical trainer
One option that may or may not be good for you — depending on your specific back issue — is the elliptical trainer. Although low-impact, the machine typically leads to bending at the waist further than when walking. This may, for example, exacerbate a herniated disc through increased spinal flexion.
As with any injury or condition, Schulz strongly advises a consultation with a doctor or physical therapist to determine the best workout for you. “Also, let your pain be your guide,” she says. “You may not need to stop the activity forever, but modify or build up slowly to let your back adapt.”