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Got Back Pain? 5 Exercises That Can Make It Better

Don’t let an aching back hurt your healthy lifestyle. Stay active by choosing the right workout for your back pain.

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Isn’t exercise bad for back pain?

Just the opposite, experts say. “The research is well documented: Exercise does a bad back good,” according to spine surgeon Jack Stern, MD, in his book, Ending Back Pain. “For most people with low back pain, physical activity plays a strong role in recovery.” A strong, well-conditioned back is better at withstanding stress and protecting the spine compared to one that hasn’t been conditioned through exercise. Some workouts, like the following ones, are better than others when it comes to healing an aching back or preventing pain in the first place. Make sure to check which everyday habits you have that are probably causing back pain, too.

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Yoga Stretches

In a 2011 Archives of Internal Medicine study, 228 adults were assigned to either 12 weekly 75-minute yoga or stretching classes, or to read a self-care book about back pain. Those in the yoga and stretching classes saw much greater relief of symptoms. Yoga not only helps strengthen the back, it also stretches and relaxes the muscles that carry pain-triggering stress. People with lower back pain specifically may benefit from stretching the hamstring muscles (this expands pelvic motion, reducing lower back stress) trying poses like a forward bend, standing bent over and holding the calves, or the classic downward-facing dog. Yoga’s gentle stretches increase blood flow to your back, which can help heal strains. If you have back pain, try a yoga class for beginners and let the instructor know about any pain zones. New to yoga? Here’s what yoga instructors want you to know before coming to class. 

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Walking

A 2013 study published in the journal Clinical Rehabilitation found that a simple walk could be as effective as specific strength training. Researchers recruited 52 sedentary patients with chronic lower back pain and assigned half to muscle-strengthening sessions and the other half to treadmill sessions twice a week (first for 20 minutes, then eventually for 40 minutes). After six weeks, all participants reported less pain and less avoidance of daily activities, and there was no significant difference between the two groups, showing that walking could be just as effective as other, more intensive workouts for back pain. Try a stroll in the morning, during lunch, or after dinner a few days a week, and if you can, increase your mileage/pace or intensity by adding hills, according to Dr. Stern. As you raise your heart rate for an extended period, you’ll increase the flow of blood and healing nutrients to your back. Besides alleviating back pain, walking for just 15 minutes also has these amazing health benefits.

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Cycling

Many people blame bicycling for causing lower back pain, but with the right form, this exercise can actually help discomfort. The reason for pain while biking: Fatigue changes how bicyclists move, causing them to spread their knees and bend forward more. The more tired they get, the worse their back posture becomes. However, many upright and reclining bikes help riders avoid this painful position, and may offer a less jolting workout than, say, jogging. Experiment with different types of bikes at the gym to see which is most comfortable for you. Remember to distribute some weight to your arms (while keeping your chest raised) to avoid back strain.

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Pilates

This combination of stretching and strengthening exercises is commonly recommended for those with back pain because it builds up the body’s core and mobilizes the spine. A classic Canadian study found that when 39 participants (ages 20 to 55) were assigned one of two treatments, Pilates training or care from physicians, those practicing Pilates showed significantly lower functional disability and average pain intensity. Another Italian study published this year found similar results with 60 volunteers who either took a few weekly Pilates sessions or remained inactive. The Pilates group saw increases in physical functioning, better overall health, and less pain-induced disability, while the inactive group worsened in those measures.

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Hydrotherapy

When you have chronic back pain, exercise is often easier with a splash because the water minimizes stress on the back, according to Dr. Stern (no wonder it’s one of the best exercises for your body that you can do). “The buoyancy of water counteracts the gravitational pull that can compress the spine,” he writes. Many gyms offer pool classes like Aqua Fit, a cardiovascular water workout designed to improve strength, or Aqua Zumba, the high-energy spinoff of the dance workout craze. If you’re hitting the water solo, simple low-strain exercises can do the trick. Try “pulling” (take long strokes with your arms, leaving legs isolated to float behind) for an upper body workout that doesn’t twist and turn your lower back.