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Exercise and Back Pain

Back pain seems to be a very common condition that I come across quite often when talking to potential clients or people around the gym. In today’s day and age, many more people appear to suffer with back conditions with modern day lifestyle contribution to most of these symptoms and conditions. Now I’m not saying every back issue is the same, in fact each back issue needs to be looked into on an individual basic, however there are some things that you can do to help alleviate and prevent back pain from occurring.

Whilst the typical response to back pain 20 years ago was take it easy – either by bed rest or stopping exercise all together- research has shown that resting more than a day or two can actually undermine the healing process and worsen the pain.

Engaging in exercise and fitness activities can help keep the back healthy by allowing discs to exchange fluids which will supply nutrition to the discs. Exercising the back reduces stiffness by keeping the connective fibres of the ligaments and tendons flexible and improves mobility.

Even if someone has chronic back pain (such as a worn facet joint or disc), the first thoughts are to avoid normal activities and movement. This will probably affect your confidence, as well as leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression which ultimately leads to lack of exercise and movement. This can become a vicious circle. The longer this goes on the harder it will be to recover. Providing you have spoken to your doctor, and you do the correct forms of exercise with the appropriate level of intensity it is important that you continue with exercise and daily activities as much as possible.

When done in a controlled, progressive manner, exercises for relieving back pain have many benefits, including:

  • Strengthening the muscles that support the spine, removing pressure from the spinal discs and facet joints.

  • Alleviating stiffness and improving mobility.

  • Improving circulation to better distribute nutrients through the body, including to the spinal discs.

  • Releasing endorphins, which can naturally relieve pain. A frequent release of endorphins can help reduce reliance on pain medication. Endorphins can also elevate mood and relieve depressive symptoms, a common effect of chronic pain.

  • Minimizing the frequency of back or neck pain episodes, and reducing the severity of pain when it does occur.

Exercise and activity for people with back pain should include elements of endurance, strength and flexibility, the latter two are particularly important. Now whilst every person and situation is different there are some basic exercises that people can do to help reduce or alleviate back pain. For example, if you sit in front of a computer all day and suffer back pain, this is probably due to poor posture, a good stretching and resistance program involving retraction exercises can help stretch and mobilise stiff muscles as well as strengthen weaker ones.

Stretching – Stretching exercises should focus on achieving flexibility and elasticity in discs, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Focus of stretching areas of the legs, particularly if you are struggling with lower back pain, as muscles that are tight in the lower extremities of the body such as the hamstrings limits the motion in the pelvis and can place it in a position that increases stress across the lower back. A good stretching and foam rolling program should include Hip flexors, Hamstrings, Piriformis, Calves, and Glutes. Remember stretches should not be forced, and should not be painful.

Strengthening – It has been researched widely that future episodes of back pain can be less likely to occur if you compliment your stretching program with an element of strengthening. In general exercises that extend the spine, focus on “neutral” spine, core activation and glute strengthening will all help to strengthen the back and supporting muscles around the back as well as teaching the spine how to stay in position. For upper back and neck pain, retraction exercises are particularly good to strengthen the muscles around the shoulder blades and mid-back. These exercises should start light to restrict elevation in the shoulder girdle. Note that a strengthening program should be progressive and pay particular attention to activating the “core” muscles.

Aerobic Conditioning – Exercising through low impact aerobics is important for both rehabilitation and maintenance of the lower back. People that are conditioned aerobically are more likely to continue and maintain regular routine in their life. Some examples of aerobic activities include walking or stationary bike as they both provide minimal impact on the lower back, and water therapy such as water aerobics or swimming because as well as conditioning they provide buoyancy as well as mild resistance.

As you can see it is important to keep moving and active even with lower back problems. Having a strong “core” and midline support is important to decrease the stress placed on the lumbar spine and pelvis. Stretching, foam rolling and physical therapy manipulation can aid with discomfort and can help realign and lengthen muscles that are pulling other parts of the body out of alignment.

Back pain is not a “one size fits all” approach, however addressing the basics can dramatically improve quality of life and overall wellbeing. For more information, advice or support on implementing a fitness program to help reduce back pain please contact us at to book in for a FREE consultation.

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