Health/Fitness » Fitness

Exercises for Back Pain

by Kent McGroarty
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Mar 8, 2012

Though the usual response to back pain is to cease any strenuous activity and resign yourself to days spent in bed or on the couch, rest is not the best thing for back problems, whether acute or chronic. While a day or two of rest can promote healing, remaining sedentary beyond a few days can be detrimental to your back. "Active" back exercises are often required to reduce back pain and strengthen the spine. Though there are some exercises that should be avoided to prevent aggravating back pain, many low-impact forms of exercise as well as those that specifically target, stretch, and strengthen the back will help get the back feeling good again.

Back pain is a common health issue that is usually the result of nerve or muscle problems. Pain can occur in the upper, middle, or lower back. Lower back pain is pain anywhere that is below the ribs and above the buttocks, with many people suffering from sciatic pain. The lower back is the most common area of the back that hurts as it is the connection between the upper and lower body, and much of the body's weight is carried by the lower back.

Acute back pain is defined as pain that lasts less than three months and usually heals through home treatment. Chronic back pain is pain that lasts more than three months and is generally alleviated by more intensive therapy. Symptoms of back pain include sharp, concentrated pain, continuous stiffness in the spine, the inability to stand up straight and chronic pain when either sitting or standing. Back pain can easily occur from performing everyday movements, such as lifting, reaching, or twisting.

Healthcare professionals recommend being as active as possible to keep the back healthy. The more active you are, the greater your chances of healing quickly should you injure your back (or any other part of your body, for that matter!). Keeping the back, leg, and stomach muscles strong is encouraged to maintain a healthy back. This along with frequent stretching of these muscles makes them less susceptible to injury resulting in back pain, and also helps keep the spine supported. This reduces stress on the spinal disks, which can help prevent them from being injured. Strong back, leg, and stomach muscles in addition to learning how to pick up heavy objects properly, managing stress well, and using good posture will all help keep the back healthy.

Aerobic exercises recommended for optimal back health or to exercise the back after injury include swimming, walking, and walking waist-deep in water. Such exercises not only help the back, but also provide heart-healthy benefits, tone other muscles, and help maintain overall health. Because aerobic exercises make the heart and muscles use oxygen more frequently, muscles that receive blood rich in oxygen tend to stay healthier.

Even if you are only looking to alleviate back pain, your exercise routine should work the whole body rather than focusing on the back. Health experts recommend a balanced workout that includes exercises that stretch and strengthen the back in combination with low-impact aerobic exercises. Depending on the severity of the back pain, you may want to discuss an exercise regimen with a spine specialist. That way you both can come up with a customized program that uses the correct form and technique to heal and strengthen the back. Rehabilitation programs can vary greatly from person to person.

Exercises that worsen back pain and should therefore be avoided include straight-leg sit ups, bent leg sit ups, or partial sit ups (curl ups). Leg lifts and toe touches while standing should also be avoided, as should lifting heavy weights above the waist, such as bicep curls or standing military presses.

Certain motions, such as sitting with the back and hips flexed, or standing with the back and hips extended, can help a person with back pain experience relief. It is recommended that exercises that shift the body into comfortable positions are best for treating back pain. If back pain feels better when sitting down, then perform exercises that bend you forward, such as knee-to-chest exercises. Examples of exercises for those whose back pain is eased by sitting down include the "Single Knee to Chest" exercise. It involves lying on the back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Bring one knee to the chest with the other foot flat on the floor, though this leg may also be kept straight if it helps reduce pain. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds while keeping the back pressed straight into the floor. Relax, lower the knee to its original position, and repeat with the other leg. Repeat two to four more times with each leg.

If back pain is reduced by standing or lying down, try the "Hip Flexor Stretch." Kneel on the floor with one leg behind you, the other bent in front of you. Position yourself so your bent knee is over the foot, and keep the other knee on the floor. Slowly push the hips in a forward motion until you can feel the muscles in the upper thigh of your rear leg stretching. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds, and then repeat with the other leg. Do this two to four times on each side.

If neither sitting nor standing alleviates back pain, try the "Clamshell" exercise. Lie on your side with your legs and feet stacked on top of each with legs bent. Raise your top leg while keeping the feet together, but refrain from allowing the hips to roll back. Hold the position for six seconds, and then slowly lower your leg back down. Rest for ten seconds, and then repeat the motion eight to twelve times.

These are just a few examples of the many exercises used to ease back pain. Talk to a healthcare professional or back specialist before performing these or any exercises designed to alleviate back pain to avoid worsening existing back pain symptoms. Regular back pain exercise will help side-step stiffness and weakness that comes with back pain, as well as minimize the severity and duration of future back pain episodes.

Yet another of the many health benefits of exercise!

Kent McGroarty is a freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor to EDGE’S Style, Travel, Health, and Fitness channels. Contact her at


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