What better time than the start of a fresh new year to get moving again—or exercise more often? But if you have a bad back, you may be wondering which cardio exercises will rev the metabolism and tone the muscles without triggering or aggravating back pain, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
Fortunately, Dr. Liu says, plenty of heart-pumping options are also back-friendly. And for some, the first hurdle may be mistakenly believing that people with spinal problems shouldn’t exercise. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
“It is true that certain high-impact cardio exercises probably aren’t a good idea for back sufferers,” he says, including running or step aerobics. But many other vigorous exercises are still on the table for those with a history of back pain.
Try these back-friendly cardio exercises
What are the best aerobic exercises for back sufferers? At the top of the list are low-impact movements that can elevate the heart rate and improve fitness while minimizing twisting and bending. These include:
- Brisk walking: Faster than a stroll but still gentle on the back, brisk walking works the muscles while raising heart and respiration rates, Dr. Liu says. “The best part is, you don’t need any fancy equipment—just a good, supportive pair of shoes or sneakers,” he adds. “If the weather is bad, you can always try mall-walking or walk on a treadmill.”
- Swimming: The beauty of swimming is the weightless quality it confers, which helps counteract gravity and its compression of the spine. “Swimming—and water aerobics for even greater rigor—are wonderful ways to condition your body without exercising on a hard surface,” Dr. Liu says. “If swimming laps aggravates lower back pain, try the breaststroke or backstroke instead.”
- Elliptical trainers: Especially good at strengthening the hips and legs, elliptical training also has the advantage of continuous movement in an oval motion. This is far better for the back than pushing the feet off a hard surface, Dr. Liu says. “Many elliptical machines also feature a choice of resistance settings to help customize your workout,” he adds.
- Stationary bicycling: Mimicking the pedaling motion of a bicycle, the stationary version offers aerobic benefits without the bumps and other jostling that’s typical of riding a bike on uneven terrain. “Stationary bikes also come in upright or recumbent styles, further enabling riders to decide how much back support they need,” he says.
How does cardio exercise help back sufferers?
Cardio exercise offers these advantages:
- Increases flow of oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to the spinal area, which promotes healing.
- Cuts stiffness in back muscles and joints, which can add to pain.
- Reduces the incidence of lower back pain.
- Raises production of natural pain-killing chemicals known as endorphins, which are made by the body after sustained exercise and can lower the need for pain medication.
- Improves weight control, resulting in less stress on the spine and surrounding joints.
“Babying your back isn’t the answer for those with chronic back pain,” explains Dr. Liu. “Staying immobile may seem like a smart tactic if you’re a back sufferer, but it’s the wrong conclusion. Back-friendly cardio exercises not only help back pain patients stay more functional when discomfort does strike, but can help keep pain flare-ups at bay.”