There is a wide range of back problems - from simple back strain to serious injury - but the one thing almost all of them have in common is that part of the cure involves exercise and fitness. A good exercise routine is important on an ongoing basis to reduce the chances of recurring pain. The good news is that there is such a variety of exercise and fitness options that everyone should be able to find something that is enjoyable and effective.
Exercise Helps an Injury Heal
We can’t say this enough—the natural stimulus for the healing process is active exercise, done in a controlled, gradual and progressive manner. Movement distributes nutrients into the disc space and soft tissues in the spine to keep the discs, muscles, ligaments and joints healthy. And the converse is true too - lack of exercise can worsen your pain by leading to stiffness, weakness and de-conditioning. Regular stretching exercise is also important for healing. Daily hamstring stretching is recommended, as tight hamstring muscles increase the stress on your lower back. See also Rehabilitation and Exercise for a Healthy Back.
Strong Abdominal Muscles Reduce Stress on the Spine
Most people don’t know this, but strong abdominal muscles play an important role in avoiding and/or recovering from back problems. The intricate network of muscles and ligaments that connect to the spinal column provide important support, strength and stability for the spine, and well-conditioned abdominal muscles decrease stress on the structures of the spine. And unlike muscles in the legs and arms, which get some exercise just from everyday activities, the abdominal muscles don’t get much of a workout from daily movements and need specific exercises to stay strong (and the same holds true for lower back muscles). See also Back Exercises and Abdominal Exercise Recommendations.
Walking Provides Gentle Exercise for Your Back
Exercise walking has many benefits - it helps build strength in muscle groups that hold your body upright, brings nutrients to the spinal structures, improves flexibility and increases the production of pain-fighting endorphins. If you have ongoing back pain, balanced and stable walking enhances your ability to continue doing everyday activities, while reducing the likelihood and/or severity of additional episodes of back pain. Walking is low-impact exercise which allows the muscles to be worked without causing much stress or impact on the spine. Exercise walking involves keeping a brisk pace, good form and going for about 30 minutes (around 2 miles) 3 or 4 times a week. See also Exercise Walking for Better Back Health.
Water Therapy Exercise is Even Gentler
Exercises that would normally be too painful to do on land (such as walking) are often tolerable to do in the water. This is because the water counteracts gravity and helps to support your weight in a controlled fashion. The water also provides friction against movement, allowing strengthening and conditioning, while reducing the risk of further injury from losing your balance. The support provided by water can be very helpful for anyone who is overweight, as the effect of buoyancy essentially negates the extra body weight, allowing free movement in the water. It is also quite effective for anyone with a painful joint condition, such as osteoarthritis. See also Water Therapy Exercise Program.
Some Forms of Exercise are Quite Soothing
For some people, additional benefits can be enjoyed from calm and quiet forms of exercise. For example, yoga involves a lot of gentle stretching, which increases blood flow, allowing nutrients to flow in, toxins to flow out, and providing overall nourishment of the muscles and soft tissues in the lower back. Tai Chi involves a lot of movement, but only slow, gentle, flowing movements of the body; it does not involve any jarring motions that create impact on the spine. Both yoga and Tai Chi also incorporate meditative techniques that can help ease stress and anxiety, which many people feel plays an important part in easing their back pain. See also Healing Benefits of Yoga and Tai Chi for Posture and Back Pain.
Depending on your specific diagnosis and level of pain, your rehabilitation exercise program will be very different, so it is important to see a spine specialist who is trained to develop an individualized exercise program and instruct you on correct form and technique. If you haven’t had a good experience with exercise before, we encourage you to try again—perhaps try a new instructor or a new form of exercise—because as a general rule, people who exercise regularly simply have less pain than those who do not exercise.