If there’s a symptom that most people will experience at some point in their life it’s back pain. Back pain has a number of causes – but most commonly when you feel that familiar twinge in your lower back it’s a mechanical in nature, usually due to strained muscles or ligaments in the back. Back pain can come from using improper form to lift something heavy like a box or from straining your back at the gym because you used incorrect form. When you’ve strained your back you might think rest would be the best medicine – taking a break from the gym and taking it easy for a few days or weeks. Don’t be so quick to ditch your workout! Exercise just might be the best “medicine” you can have to ease lower back pain – and prevent it from recurring too.
Exercise and Back Pain: Does Exercise Help or Hinder?
According to a study carried out at the University of Alberta, exercise is of benefit to even chronic back pain sufferers. They followed 240 men and women with lower back pain for four months. One group exercised with weights four days a week, another group three days a week and the last group only two days a week. All three groups enjoyed a reduction in pain and improved quality of life but the group that trained with weights four days a week experienced the greatest benefits.
This isn’t the first study to show exercise is beneficial for back pain symptoms. A study published in the British Medical Journal also points out the benefits of exercise for back pain. This study showed an exercise program that combined overall strength training, stretching and relaxation exercises reduced disability in men and women sidelined by back pain.
Exercise Speeds Recovery from Back Pain
These days many doctors are recommending that patients with mild back pain limit bed rest and return to normal activity as quickly as possible. Bed rest can make the symptoms worse. Ever notice how the lower back pain due to a strain is worse when you get up in the morning? That’s because hours of inactivity causes muscles to stiffen. Once you start moving around and increase blood flow to your back, the pain lets up a little. Bed rest and lack of exercise also weaken the muscles in your lower back at a time when you need them to be stronger. One study showed people who “rested” their back by lying in bed were more likely to have negative outcomes like worsening of the pain, more missed days from the work week and greater disability.
Exercising with Back Pain
If you’ve recently strained your back and having a significant amount of pain, you may need to modify your routine a bit. Stick with exercises that don’t exacerbate the pain. For cardiovascular exercise, grab a low-impact DVD and use it to get an aerobic workout for a few days until the pain improves.
Don’t put away the weights. Resistance training stretches out the muscles and reduces spasm, but avoid doing exercises that aggravate the pain. For example, if you have lower back pain, stay away from exercises like leg lifts, crunches, and deadlifts that put stress on the lower back. If you do squats, lighten up on the weight or use no weight at all – and stop if it triggers pain or discomfort.
Stretching and yoga are also good therapy for back. One study showed yoga and stretching classes were equally effective for preventing pain. Do one or the other or both to stretch out the muscles in your lower back.
Exercise for Preventing Lower Back Pain
To avoid back pain in the future, add exercises that strengthen your lower back to your workout. Most people spend more time strengthening their abdominal muscles than they do their back. This creates an imbalance that increases the risk of back injury. Balance out abdominal work with “supermans” (or “superwomans”) where you lie on your tummy and raise your legs and chest off the floor to target your lower back. Strengthen your core with different variations on the plank.
Work on posture and how you sit in a chair too. Make sure your spine is straight and you have good lumbar support. Bad posture and slouching is a common cause of back pain. Finally, focus on form by watching the movements you’re doing in the mirror when you lift weights. Make sure you’re not arching your back or throwing the weight around. It’s easy to get sloppy – but it’s not worth it if you end up with back pain. Watch how you pick up the weights when you strength train. Use your legs and core to take pressure off your back when you lift. Don’t bend over and use your back when you lift or twist when picking up a weight or object.
The Bottom Line?
Activity is better than bed rest if you have a lower back strain in most cases. If you have severe back pain, weakness in your legs, numbness, pain that worsens with coughing or changes in your bowel and bladder habits, see your doctor. These can be signs of a herniated disc.
Science Daily. “Exercise More, Not Less, to Ease Aching Back, Study Suggests”
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West J Med. 2000 February; 172(2): 121.
Science Daily. “Yoga Eases Back Pain in Largest U.S. Yoga Study to Date”
Ann Intern Med. 2011;155(9):569-578.
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