Cardio Options For Back Pain Sufferers
If back pain is going strong after three months, it’s officially “chronic.” Getting active can help ease the pain — but as you know, not just any aerobic exercise will do. Read on for help understanding chronic back pain and top cardio exercise options.
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice and is for informational purposes only. As with any injury, please consult with your doctor before doing any exercise.
How Exercise Helps: Connecting Cardio and Chronic Back Pain
All back-friendly exercise, like swimming and elliptical training, is low impact. In other words it doesn’t jar your body to bring additional damage. But how can cardiovascular exercise actually help your back pain?
One key is blood circulation. When you boost your physical activity, your blood circulates more quickly to keep muscles rich with oxygen and nutrients, and to carry muscles’ waste products away. This means that your back muscles and other back structures get an immediate nutrient boost compared with when you’re sedentary. The increased blood flow can decrease stiffness… helping you feel more like “your old self” instead of “yourself, but old.” It can also help speed up recovery.
Second, cardio can activate your body’s own pharmaceutical factory: About 30 minutes into vigorous aerobic exercise, natural painkillers called endorphins flood your bloodstream. These opioids are responsible for a “runner’s high” and can help relieve chronic back pain too. They’re often potent enough to reduce reliance on pain medication.
Other explanations may apply too. For instance, cardio exercise can bring weight loss, and weight loss can ease back pain. (Obesity can cause or amplify chronic back pain by putting excess weight on your musculoskeletal system.) Another benefit of regular exercise is that your overall pain threshold may increase. Over time you could feel less discomfort everyday from the same degree of back injury.
Top Cardio Activities Against Chronic Back Pain
If back pain has been keeping you sidelined, then finding an activity that you enjoy can dramatically improve your physical and mental health. For example:
- The American Heart Association recommends that healthy adults get at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise every week to maintain or improve heart health. You can break this down in different ways and still get the heart health benefits. (Try two 75-minute workouts or five 30-minute workouts, for instance.)
- Mental health can improve with back-friendly cardio exercise, especially regarding depression. Back pain and depression seem to be closely related… and regardless of which comes first, ultimately they can work in a vicious cycle.
The best cardio exercise for chronic back pain is low impact; it doesn’t jar your body. Read on for popular examples.
Disclaimer: Check with your healthcare professional before starting exercise. Depending on the cause of your chronic back pain, and other possible health issues, some activities might do more harm than good.
Swimming and Other Water Exercises
When you enter a body of water, its buoyancy helps diminish Earth’s downward pull on your spine and the rest of your body. The deeper you’re immersed in water, the “lighter” you become. At waist level you’ll experience only about 40% to 50% of the gravitational pull you feel on land. In chest-deep water you can reduce your weight-bearing to about 30% of your land body weight.
Swimming is the most obvious low-impact cardio exercise, and this is when gravity’s pull on your spine is the lightest. For people with chronic back pain the best swimming form is usually the back stroke or side stroke. The breaststroke could aggravate back pain.
Aqua aerobics and aqua jogging — running across a pool floor — can also be easy on your back and help relieve pain.
Aqua aerobics can involve cross training. That is, you can also use water as your “gym” for strength training as well as for cardio exercise. Aqua weights and other resistance tools have been designed especially for pool use.
Elliptical machines are among the lower-impact cardio trainers for health clubs and home gyms. While allowing intense workouts, ellipticals support very non-jarring motion. That’s because they let your legs move forward in a continuous oval motion instead of repeatedly striking a path. And while you get a great cardio workout, you also get strength training. You can choose from light to heavy pedal resistance, and you can also exercise your upper body if you choose an elliptical with moving handlebars.
Choose from standing or seated ellipticals:
- For standing elliptical trainers, the best for easing and avoiding back pain are the long rear drive or smaller center drive machines. Compared with front drive ellipticals, these make it easy to keep a healthy posture as you train.
- Seated elliptical machines are also called recumbent ellipticals. These cardio trainers provide lumbar support with their high-backed seats. Besides being especially easy on the spine, they are favored for taking pressure off the hips, knees and ankles.
Elliptical machines are sold at a wide range of quality levels. Generally the cheapest ellipticals have light flywheels, which can make motion a bit choppy. The best ellipticals generally have flywheel weights of about 25 pounds and up. They let you choose from about 20 resistance settings. Some have built-in workout videos with scenic settings, mobile fitness app connections, and other special features for motivation.
Although outdoor biking can be rough on your back, stationary cycling obviously avoids pebbles and pitfalls. It is low impact on your spine, and it can be especially comfortable when you use correct form on an upright stationary bike… or lean back with a recumbent exercise bike.
Exercise bikes brake differently compared with outdoor bikes. For the smoothest rides, we recommend bikes with magnetic resistance or air resistance. Bikes that use air resistance are especially durable and can meet all fitness levels. A potential downside though is that air bikes make noise with their fan blades. Bikes with magnetic resistance have virtually silent shifting.
Like elliptical machines, exercise bikes are available with preset workout programs. These work as virtual personal trainers by adjusting the speed and resistance of the pedals. Some stationary bikes can simulate uphill and downhill training too.
Walking on a treadmill or outdoor path isn’t as low impact as the activities above, but it can be gentle enough to benefit your back. For many people with chronic back pain, walking two to three miles a few times per week is very helpful. And if you live in an area where outdoor exercise is safe and convenient, then no special equipment is required besides high quality shoes.
Want a home treadmill? With your back in mind, choose one with special attention to cushioning. Even with high quality cushioning, treadmills for walkers cost less than those for runners, on average. This is mainly because walkers need less track space and less horsepower from their fitness machines.
How can walking help your back? One benefit of walking is the increase in blood circulation, as described above. Another benefit mentioned above is weight loss; walking can help take pounds of pressure off your frame. Finally, a third benefit is the strengthening of your muscles: Especially if you deliberately move your arms while walking, you can strengthen your core and lower back, thereby easing your back pain with cardio.