When you’re living with back pain, it’s understandable to want to avoid exercise and sports, but this will only make your pain worse. You need to stay active and moving, and the following exercises are some great options for this. Tai Chi, yoga, aquatic exercise, walking, and strength training are all sports that will get you moving without back pain.
All About Tai Chi
The American College of Physicians suggested tai chi as an option for treating chronic back pain in 2017, as a part of their treatment study guidelines.
If you’re unfamiliar with this ancient Chinese martial art, tai chi combines slow movements with deep breathing and mental focus. Tai chi gently exercises your body through pose stretches that flow into each other, guaranteeing that your body will constantly be in motion while practicing. This exercise places very little stress on your muscles and joints, making it safe for most people, regardless of age or fitness level. In addition to this, tai chi doesn’t require special equipment, is very easy to adapt to your specific needs, and can be practiced either indoors or outdoors.
There are also different forms of tai chi, with some placing emphasis on health maintenance and meditation, and others placing emphasis on martial arts. Whichever form you choose to focus on will depend on what you’re trying to achieve and your health needs.
Benefits of Tai Chi for Back Pain
Tai chi also benefits your body by strengthening your core, the muscles in your abdomen and pelvic areas which play a large role in supporting your lower back. It also increases your awareness of your posture, which helps provide support to back as well. You will likely also gain improved flexibility and balance.
Because tai chi requires that you focus your attention on your breathing and visualizing the movement of “chi” or energy through your body, it can generate relaxation by providing mental distance from your physical issues. This can also help reduce your perception of pain by minimizing stress and tension that may be adding to it.
A survey from Consumer Reports that evaluated more than 3,500 adults that had suffered from back pain within the past three years confirmed that tai chi provides back pain relief for most people. Nearly 90% of the adults surveyed who used tai chi stated that they had found it helpful. Only 64% of people surveyed felt that treatment from a primary-care physician or orthopedic surgeon provided relief.
If you’ve had back pain that resolved itself, it’s still recommended that you take up an exercise that will strengthen your back and improve your posture. Doing so will prevent back pain from returning, making tai chi a successful prevention strategy.
Practicing Tai Chi
If your back pain is a result of a recent injury, you’ll want to speak with your doctor before beginning any new exercise. Even if your back pain has not been caused by an injury, you should still consult your doctor before beginning new exercise.
Tai chi classes are very accessible, with most YMCAs and other recreational centers offering classes. The American Tai Chi and Qigong Association also provides a list of certified instructors in different areas. If you choose to join a class, it’s recommended that you speak to your instructor about your back pain before your class. Once made aware of your pain, your instructor will be able to provide advice on how to make the movies more comfortable for yourself. While tai chi is generally safe and gentle, some postures can cause tension or pain. If you experience this, avoid those postures.
Here are some back-safe tai chi moves for you to practice:
- Circle the globe
- Begin by holding your arms out in front of you as if cradling a beach ball, with your right hand on top and your left hand on the bottom.
- Relax your knees.
- Then, step slightly to the side with your right leg, shift your weight, and slowly turn your torso to your right.
- Exhale as your hands, still in the cradling position, glide across your body.
- Once your arms reach your right side, inhale while rotating your hands so that your left arm is now above your right in the cradling position.
- Shift your weight onto your left leg and exhale while turning your torso to your left.
- Push and pull
- Relax your knees, raising both of your arms to shoulder height in front of yourself, palms facing out.
- Imagine that you are at the center of a clock and with your right leg, step forward toward the 2 on the clock.
- Shift your weight, exhale, and gently push with your arms.
- Turn your palms inward and inhale while pulling your arms back toward you.
- Repeat several times on each side.
In order to get the most out of your tai chi practice, it’s recommended that you exercise at least two times a week for 45 minutes to an hour.
Low Impact Yoga
All About Yoga
Yoga is a great exercise because it’s a mind and body therapy that can not only treat back pain but the stress that can accompany and cause it as well. Practicing yoga will allow you to become more aware of your body, helping you discern where you may be holding tension and where you may have imbalances. This awareness can then be used to bring yourself into balance and alignment.
Benefits of Yoga for Back Pain
Many studies have proven that yoga has the ability to relieve back soreness and improve your function. Specifically, a study published in July 2017 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, yoga can also help reduce a person’s need for pain medication.
This three-month study began with one group being assigned to physical therapy for back pain, another group being assigned to yoga, and the third group being assigned to read about pain management strategies, with about 70% of subjects taking pain medication. By the end of the study, only 50% of participants within the yoga and physical therapy groups were still taking medication.
Yoga may not be a good idea if your back pain is severe, but if you struggle with acute back pain or occasional aches, you will likely benefit from spine lengthening postures, stretching your muscles, and realigning your back.
Thanks to yoga’s focus on balance and steadiness, practicing yoga will encourage your body to cultivate defenses against the causes of back pain, such as weak core muscles or a lack of hip flexibility. Using yoga to strengthen your core will improve your posture, reducing the load on your back and reducing the pain you feel. Stretching your muscles can also increase flexibility by accelerating blood flow to tight muscles.
Yoga may also have an effect on how the brain processes pain, according to researchers. A study by the National Institutes of Health published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in mya 2015 found that there is a significant difference between the brains of people with chronic pain and the brains of yoga practitioners. The difference was that people with chronic pain had less brain tissue in regions of the brain that provide help with pain tolerance, while those who regularly practice yoga had more brain tissue in these areas. This shows that yoga may be equally as neurologically protective as it is physically protective.
The following are examples of yoga poses that you’ll want to try if you’re practicing yoga for back pain.
- Pigeon Pose
- Tight hips can contribute to lower back pain and this pose relaxes the hips by stretching the rotators and flexors. It should be noted that this pose can be difficult for anyone new to yoga.
- Start in the downward-facing dog position with your feet together.
- Bring your left knee forward and turn it out to the left so that your left leg is bent and almost perpendicular to your right leg, then lower both legs to the ground.
- You can either keep your right leg extended straight behind you, or carefully pull your foot off the ground and in toward your back for an added hamstring stretch. Only do this if you’re experienced in yoga and the pigeon pose to avoid injury.
- Hold this pose for 5 to 10 breaths, switch to the other side, and repeat.
- Extended Triangle
- This posture may be able to help in alleviating back pain, sciatica, and neck pain by stretching your spine, hips, and groin, and strengthening your shoulders, chest, and legs.
- From a standing position, walk your feet out about four feet apart.
- Turn your right toes so that they face forward, and turn your left toes out at an angle.
- Lift your arms so that they’re parallel to the floor, palms facing down.
- Tilt forward and hinge at your right hip so that you can come forward with your arm and torso.
- To begin, bring your hand to your leg, a yoga block, or to the floor.
- Extend your left arm up toward the ceiling.
- You can either look up, forward, or down.
- Hold for up to 1 minute, and repeat on the other side.
- Sphinx Pose
- This pose involves a gentle backbend that will strengthen your spine and buttocks. It also stretches your chest, shoulders, and abdomen.
- To start the pose, lie on your stomach with your legs extended behind you.
- Engage the muscles in your lower back, buttocks, and thighs.
- Being your elbows in under your shoulders with your forearms on the floor and your palms facing down.
- From this position, slowly lift up your upper torso and your head.
- Gently lift, engaging your lower abdominal muscles to support your back.
- When lifting your head, make sure that you’re lifting through your spine and out through the crown of your head, rather than collapsing into your lower back.
- Keep your gaze fixed straight ahead of you as fully relax into this pose.
- Hold this pose for up to 5 minutes.
Remember to consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, and keep in mind that when joining a new yoga class, you may want to join a studio or class that focuses on alleviating back pain.
All About Walking
Walking is included in clinical guidelines for treating low back pain because moving your body by walking allows blood to circulate, transporting important nutrients to your tissues, accelerating healing. This activity can also improve your mood, circulation, immune system, quality of sleep, glucose levels, and balance. It can also lower your risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. It specifically helps your spine by causing blood to pump from your heart through the center of your body, which includes the spine.
Walking can be considered a full-body workout because the leg movement used while walking requires muscles from every part of the body. When walking, your back muscles work constantly to maintain an upright position. Improved circulation, along with this muscle activity, helps healing, and creates endurance in the back muscles.
Benefits of Walking for Back Pain
Researchers from the Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Science at the University of Bologna came to the conclusion that walking regularly decreases pain and increases quality of life. These findings were consistent with the results of studies from the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, Korea, and the Department of Sport and Health Sciences in the University of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth, MA.
Another review of research studies verified that walking is good for those with low back pain, and helps prevent recurrences of pain. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons states that exercising for 10 to 30 minutes anywhere between one to three times per day is recommended when recovering from low back pain. This includes walking on a treadmill or stationary bike.
In 2013, a study looked at whether a treadmill walking program was as effective as a back exercise program for patients with chronic low back pain. The study looked at 52 sedentary people who had chronic low back pain, splitting them into two groups. One group was put into a six-week clinic-based muscle strengthening program requiring three exercise sessions per week. The other group was put into a program of moderately-intense effort treadmill walking. This group started off walking for 20 minutes, eventually building up to about 40 minutes, for two to three sessions per week. Both groups experienced significant improvement in a six-minute walking test, back and abdomen muscle endurance tests, and the Low Back Pain Function Scale. The lead researcher on this study, Dr. Michal Katz-Leurer, identified advantages of a walking program, such as that they don’t require a therapist or equipment, and can be done alone at home.
Yet another study of more than 5,000 older adults found that those who walked more were less likely to suffer from lower back pain. It should be noted that a quarter of these participants had back pain.
Tips for Walking With Back Pain
Although walking can help alleviate back pain, you need to have good walking posture in order to relieve stress placed on the lower back. Good walking postures means keeping your spine in a neutral position, without leaning forward or backward, keeping your abdominal muscles engaged. You’ll also want to keep your head up and eyes forward. Making these small corrections to your walking posture will prevent low back pain and assist in pain relief and recovery for those suffering from back pain.
You’ll also want to work into a proper progression, giving your body time to adapt to greater distances through small increments. This is important for keeping your walking program sustainable and decreasing your back pain.
If your lifestyle is mostly inactive, you may want to begin by walking to the end of the block and back, increasing the length of your walk as your ability increases. In to see quicker progress, it’s suggested that you walk twice a day if your schedule permits, and to slowly add a minute to your walking time. You can also march in place while watching tv or listening to music if you don’t live somewhere that is walking-friendly or if the weather does not permit you to be outside.
You’ll also want to monitor the intensity of your walk, as this is important to seeing results. In order to get the most out of your walks, it should be brisk enough that you’re able to answer a question but not talk the entire time.
Finally, paying attention to your body is key. While walking can be a great treatment for lower back pain, you’ll want to pay attention to what your body is telling you and how you feel. Of course, if your pain worsens after a gentle walk or shortly after walking, you should see a doctor.
All About Aquatic Exercise
Aquatic exercise is very good for both your joints and muscles. Aquatic workouts can help alleviate and prevent back pain when practiced gently and safely. This is an activity that’s also beneficial regardless of your age and fitness level and provides plenty of options for modifying your workout to your needs. Although generally more gentle on the body than exercising on land, and although it may feel easier, it is just as effective.
Back pain is often caused by weak back muscles. Aquatic exercise can help prevent this by conditioning and strengthening these muscles and providing better support for your spine. However, unlike land exercise, aquatic exercise provides your body with a sort of cushion, taking stress off your back and helping you move more freely. This also minimizes your risk of injury.
Exercising in the water provides support for your body because the water will support as much as 90% of your weight. This gives you the ability to perform a wider range of motions and to perform them more easily than on land.
Aquatic exercise also improves blood flow to your muscles and your heart and lunch function. Blood flow is improved through the hydrostatic pressure of the water which encourages healthy blood flow to your muscles, and heart and lung function are improved by forcing them to work harder than usual against the water’s pressure.
Exercising in water can also decrease your perception of pain by helping you relax. This can increase the frequency and length of your workouts.
Benefits of Aquatic Exercise for Back Pain
A 2014 meta-analysis showed that aquatic exercise can help improve pain, quality of life, and a person’s ability to function in daily life even if you’re dealing with a musculoskeletal condition. This study also found that aquatic exercise provides benefits for many musculoskeletal conditions and the results a person gets from regular land exercise are the same as results a person would get from regular aquatic exercise.
Tips for Exercising in Water With Back Pain
The best and easiest way to begin your aquatic exercise journey is to find a class at your local pool or gym, at least to begin with so that you can learn proper form from an instructor.
As for what you’ll need to get started, you should, beyond standard pool necessities, you should consider flotation devices and other tools made specifically for water exercise. These include kickboards, noodles, paddles, and tubing. These tools may be helpful to you because they will help you stay afloat, decreasing pressure on your joints from movement, as well as create resistance in order to help you build muscle strength.
The following are examples of ways you can exercise in the water, as well as just one of many different specific types of stretches you can perform. Whichever you decide to try, any of these options will keep you active without causing back pain.
- Water Aerobics
- These classes generally involve moves that mimic land exercises such as dancing, running, and jumping jacks.
- Water aerobics classes should include a warm-up, a cool-down, exercises that increase flexibility, and they should be taught by an instructor who is specially trained in aquatic fitness.
- As with any other fitness class, you should speak with your doctor before starting and speak with the class instructor in order to modify the moves to your needs.
- Lap Swimming
- Swimming laps has the ability to alleviate back pain, but only when the proper form for strokes is used.
- When swimming, you should keep your head and neck in line with your spine, and consider using goggles and a snorkel in order to keep your face in the water as much as possible.
- Good strokes to start with are the breast or backstroke, as these involve less hyperextension than strokes like the butterfly or freestyle strokes.
- Superman Stretch
- This is a stretch that will allow you to fully extend and stretch your vertebrae and back muscles, which may be rare if you suffer from back pain. The water will support your weight, allowing you to do this with little to no pain.
- In order to begin this stretch, hold onto the side of the pool with both your hands, keeping them wider than shoulder-width apart and your arms straight.
- Then extend your legs behind you and spread them apart in order to float belly-down in the water.
- You can place your face in the water for a few moments in order to rest your neck for a bit.
Finally, you should begin and end any exercise with about 5 minutes of warming up and cooling down. In the pool, it’s generally recommended that you warm up by walking around waist or chest deep water, following by lunges or walking lunges. Your cool down should consist of walking as well.
All About Strength Training
Your core is made up of abdominal and back muscles that wrap around your body, providing support to your lower back and spine. Your glutes are also technically part of your core as they connect to the back and abdominal muscles.
Just like with any other muscles, these muscles need to be strengthened in order to increase the amount of weight that your lower back comfortably support and move. This will give your core a better ability to support stress from everyday activities such as working out.
If your core is not strong enough, your body will resort to relying on structures such as ligaments and bones, placing increased stress on discs, and increasing your likelihood of injury. Strength training will address mobility issues as well, which can also be a source of back pain.
Tips for Strength Training With Back Pain
When training to strengthen your core, your focus should be on exercises that will not exacerbate back pain. You’ll need to find out which movements cause you back pain or discomfort in order to avoid exercises that involve these movements. If flexion, extension, or rotation tend to cause pain for you, you may want to focus on exercises that will keep your core stable rather than exercises that involve twisting.
Before beginning your strength training, remember to warm up for 5 to 10 minutes. While exercise can ease back pain, it can also cause back pain if you fail to properly warm-up, placing sudden pressure on your spine. There are many great options for warm-up stretches, but one of the best is a yoga stretch known as the cat-cow.
- Begin on your hands and knees, keeping your back straight and your head and neck in one line.
- While inhaling, drop your stomach toward the ground and look up toward the ceiling. This is the cow pose.
- While exhaling, tuck your stomach in, arch your back, and slowly lower your head to your chest, stopping if you feel any pain. This is the cat pose.
- Tabletop Leg Press
- This move will help you practice engaging your core and will also allow you to understand what that feels like, so you can be intentional about it in your exercise.
- Begin this move by lying face up with your legs raised, keeping your knees bent 90 degrees and stacked above your hips.
- Contract your abs in order to press your lower back into the ground. Crunch up a few inches and place your hands on the front of your quads.
- Then drive your quads into your hands while also pressing them away. At this point there should be no visible movement in your body, but you should feel great tension in your core.
- Hold this position.
- Glute Bridge
- When performing this movie, be careful to lift your hips just to the point that your glutes are engaged but not so far that your back is hyperextended.
- To begin the glute bridge, start by lying on your back with your hands at your sides, knees bent, and feet flat on the floor hip-width apart.
- Squeeze your glutes and abs and push through your heels in order to lift your hips until your body is in a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
- Hold this position for a second in order to make sure your knees stay straight and do not collapse in.
- After holding, slowly lower your hips back to their starting position.
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