It is common when dealing with back pain to want to take it easy. Sometimes, this is recommended and necessary, but sitting and resting does not improve pain and stiffness long term. If you have back pain, though, usually the last thing you want to do is exercise.
A complete exercise program will include strengthening, stretching and low-impact aerobic activity (such as walking, cycling or swimming).
Low impact aerobic activity increases blood flow which supports healing and helps decrease stiffness. Low impact activities include walking, cycling, using an elliptical machine, and water based activities (i.e. swimming, walking in the shallow end.) Start slow and progress gradually. Aerobic activity is also beneficial in weight loss and weight management. Weight can play a role in back pain due to carrying extra weight, and weak abdominal and back muscles are left supporting the spine.
Strengthening exercises (specifically for the abdominals, low back and hips) provide support to the spine. Try to perform the exercises below 3 days a week.
Prone leg/arm lifts
Lie down on your stomach. Lift one leg and the opposite arm and lower down. Repeat on the other side. Keep your eyes on the floor in front of you and head aligned with your spine. Lift and lower, switching side, 10-20 times, 3 times with rest in-between each set.
All fours balance
Start on all fours - this means on your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
To start, lift and extend one leg. Hold for 10 seconds. Lift other leg. To progress, you can lift and extend one leg and lift and extend the opposite arm forward. Keep your head aligned with your spine.
Lie on your back with knees bent. Press your pelvis up. Keep pressure off of your neck. Hold 10 seconds and lower down.
Stretching helps lengthen the muscles to relieve pain due to tightness. Consistency is key; even if pain is relieved continue with your exercises. Flexibility exercises can be done daily. Try to hold each of the below exercises 20-30 seconds.
- Upper back pain can be attributed to tight neck muscles.
- Tilt your ear to your shoulder and hold, then tilt to the other side.
- Tilt your chin to your chest and hold.
Knees to chest
Lie on your back legs out straight. Bring both knees in and give them a big hug. You can place your hands in front of your knees or behind your thighs.
Optional: Keep one leg out straight and bring the other knee into your chest.
The piriformis is a muscle in the rear end that can cause tightness limiting mobility. For this exercise, lie on your back, extend one leg straight on the floor while bringing the other knee across it (stretching the outside of the buttocks area).
Standing hamstring stretch
Start standing and lean over to try and touch your toes. Do not force the stretch. Only bend over to the point of a slight stretch and hold it there.
Additional option: starting standing and cross one leg in front of the other. Lean over to try and touch your toes. Hold this stretch and then switch legs.
A few reminders on stretching:
- Do not push to the point of pain.
- Avoid bouncing during the stretch; hold.
The above (with consistency of a program) is shown to help with moderate back pain due to tightness, stress and/or inactivity.
*Prior to starting any type of new program consult your healthcare provider.
Caroline manages the internal wellness program to improve the health of Methodist Health System’s employee and dependent population. A University of Oklahoma graduate, Caroline has 10 years experience as a registered and licensed dietitian.