Chronic lower back pain is any pain in the lower back that lasts more than three months. There are a variety of causes including injuries, illnesses, or degenerative conditions common in the natural aging process. Many of us also experience acute or short-term lower back pain as a result of our work environments or minor injuries. Typically lower back pain will heal on its own or with the help of medications, surgery, or other treatments. However, as one of our recent posts, “Exercise Is Really THAT Important For Lower Back Pain” points out, exercise for lower back pain is one of the healthiest and most effective options for reducing your pain. Here’s nine exercises for lower back pain to try, and five to avoid, to help you reduce pain and get back to your life.
Why is exercise for lower back pain so important?
Because of the vast variety of causes of lower back pain, there is no possible one size fits all treatment for the condition. Each patient needs care that takes every aspect of their body and overall health into consideration. For example, a patient dealing with the effects of long-term spinal stenosis will have different needs than someone whose pain is a result of arthritis or injury. However, almost all types of lower back pain seems to respond well to holistic approaches to pain management, especially exercise.
In our earlier article, we noted that exercise for lower back pain can actually:
- Reduce your pain
- Improve your overall quality of life
- Reduce mental health issues, like depression, that are common in pain patients
- Prevent pain in the future
Medication and changes in diet are only part of the puzzle of pain management. Physical exercise is a critical component of treatment when it comes to lower back pain.
5 best exercises for lower back pain
There are a few great exercises that people with chronic pain should consider adding to their daily routines. We noted that a meta-analysis of 29 back pain studies found that exercising patients: “Experienced greater improvement in pain and less disability than those patients with minimal interventions.”
Each of these exercise options offers beginners level experiences. You can do all of these alone or you can join up with friends or attend a class to gain the social benefits of exercise as well. The trick is to find something you enjoy doing so that you will continue to exercise and not revert back to inactivity. You can also tailor each of these exercise routines to your lifestyle and your specific pain profile. All of them can be modified or changed so they do not exacerbate existing pain or cause new pain. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about the best choices for you.
Here are five of the best ways to get in your exercise for lower back pain.
One of the very best, low impact exercises for lower back pain is simply walking. The best part about walking is that it doesn’t require special equipment or a dedicated space. All you need is a pair of comfortable, supportive shoes and a route. If you’ve never been previously active you can start slowly by walking around your block. Continuously add distance to the walk until you find that a mile or more isn’t a struggle. You can also set your own pace as you increase your stamina. Walking can even be done if you don’t live in a neighborhood with sidewalks or if the weather is too hot or cold. Take a trip to a local mall and walk there instead.
Critical to many chronic pain conditions, stretching helps relieve tension in your muscles and offers you a more complete range of motion. However, there are right and wrong ways to do stretching exercises. We’ll talk about some of the dos and don’ts later in this post. Stretching is also important before you engage in any type of physical exercise. It is also good to stretch before a walk around the block or if you plan to do anything more complex.
3. Strength training
Lower back pain often affects joints or connective tissues, so increasing muscle strength around these areas can help lessen the effects of the pain. Strength training brings to mind muscle bound body builders but it doesn’t have to be pigeon-holed that way.
For example, core workouts that include sit-ups can help strengthen the muscles in the back and help alleviate low back pain. Using body weight, such as with push-ups, is a good start but you can also add small weights to other exercises to help strengthen your body. Take some time to learn about weight training safety and understand that it isn’t necessary to push yourself until it hurts. Later in this post, we’ll discuss core exercise for lower back pain you can do at home.
For a complete mind, body, and spirit work out it doesn’t get much better than yoga. This eastern meditative practice has become quite popular in the United States and is extremely accessible. There are many levels of yoga and beginner’s classes can help individuals get their bearings with the poses and breathing techniques. Most community centers or gyms offer programs. You may also find free or inexpensive yoga experiences in your area. Yoga also has the added benefit of helping you learn to stay relaxed and can help relieve stress.
You can find out even more benefits of yoga for lower back pain in a recent post.
Especially useful for individuals dealing with lower back pain as a result of joint conditions swimming is extremely low impact. Because bodies are buoyant in the water your joints don’t experience the same pressure you do when you’re walking or running. If swimming laps isn’t your thing, you could try water aerobics classes. These are frequently available at communities pools or though adult activity organizations in your neighborhood.
A core strength routine you can do anywhere
One of the best ways to avoid and prevent lower back pain is to work on the muscles in your core while at the same time working on flexibility in your hips. Below is a series of exercises to help you strengthen the muscles in the core and the back while improving flexibility.
1. Stretch first
Lie on your stomach. Bend your right knee, sending your foot towards your rear. Reach around with your right hand to grab your right foot, or use a strap to pull the foot closer to your rear. Hold this stretch for one minute, breathing into it to relax. Repeat on the opposite side.
Sit tall with your legs straight out in front of you. Take a deep breath in, then stretch forward, hinging from the hips (don’t round your lower back too much). Use a strap around your feet to gently pull yourself closer to your knees with each inhalation. Hold for one minute, then repeat for one more minute.
Take a low runner’s lunge with one foot in front and the other stretched behind you with the toes turned under and the knee touching the floor. Bend your front knee, keeping the knee over the ankle, and try to get your thigh level with the floor. Hold for one minute, switch sides, then repeat again on each side.
2. Core work
Lie on your back, knees bent. Bring one knee at a time slowly into your chest. Try to initiate the movement from your core by drawing your belly in and keeping your low back stable. Repeat slowly three times for each knee.
Still on your back, draw both knees to your chest. Again, use your core muscles to initiate the movement. You may place your hands under your hips for more stability in your lower back. Repeat five times.
Last exercise on the back: bend knees. Tighten your abdominal muscles and, with control, slowly lower your knees to either side. Try to keep your core muscles engaged and your shoulders on the floor. Repeat five times on each side.
3. Core and back work
On your stomach, stretch your arms forward. Breathe in and engage your core. Tuck your tailbone under. With your exhalation, lift the left arm and the right leg. Hold for five seconds. Lower slowly. Repeat with the right arm and left leg. Repeat five times for both sides.
Plank pose: Lay on your stomach. Place hands palms down next to your chest; the thumbs should be even with your heart. Take a deep breath in, activating your core and tucking your tailbone under. Curl toes under and slowly push your body up (you can push to your knees first, then lift up). Your back should be straight, belly button pulled in. You should be in the starting position for a push up. Hold for 30 seconds. Lower down, maintaining a strong core, then repeat. Gradually increase the time of the hold.
For a more complete set of exercises, visit PrincetonUniversity’s site for lumbar/core strength and stability.
3 stretches for lower back pain
There are many things that can cause lower back pain. And one way to prevent and treat your back pain is to take time to stretch. Here are three simple stretches that will help you alleviate back pain. Make sure to hold each stretch for about 15-30 seconds or as long as you can. Incorporating stretches into any exercise for lower back pain routine is an important step to making sure you’re getting the most comprehensive treatment for your pain.
5 lower back pain exercises to avoid
Stretching and strengthening through regular exercise improves your overall health and can alleviate back pain. Plus, it just feels good. However, some exercises cause more harm than good when it comes to pain. In general, when stretching, try to stay aware of how your body feels. If you feel pain at any point, stop. Proper form trumps depth any day. The five exercises outlined below create an exceptional risk and should be avoided by those who suffer from lower back pain. Make sure to remove these from any exercise for lower back pain program, unless you’ve gotten an okay from your doctor.
1. Seated forward fold
Sitting down with outstretched legs and reaching toward the toes was probably one of the first stretching poses you learned way back in physical education class. If you have back pain, however, you may want to avoid it now.
When you bend forward, the lumbar spine loses its natural curve. This put pressure on the discs that cushion the vertebrae and increases the risk for back pain. If you have tight hamstrings, they restrict the pelvis from tilting forward, increasing the pressure on the spine. These factors make seated forward folds a risky proposition for some people.
2. Standing forward folds
Bending over to touch your toes and stretch your hamstrings is good for you, right? Not if you have a bad back, and especially not if you have tight hamstrings.
Bending over with straight legs can lock your pelvis, preventing it from tipping forward. As a result, the forward motion comes from your lower back instead of the pelvis. As with seated forward folds, the back loses its natural curve and the vertebrae compress, creating a potentially painful situation.
You can help reduce strain on your back during forward folds by bending your knees, so your stomach lies on your chest. This takes the pressure from your back.
3. Standing or seated hamstring stretches
While stretching your hamstrings can help alleviate back pain, stretching in the wrong way or while recovering from some back injuries can increase the pain. Even if you avoid extreme forward folds, by instead placing your foot on a chair and reaching forward, the stretching sometimes aggravates such conditions as lumbar disc injuries.
These popular abdominal-strengthening exercises may build stomach muscles, but they can also lead to back pain. Struggling to lift up sometimes strains the lower back, especially if you use the hips muscles to pull up instead of the abdominal muscles.
When doing any core work, focus on smaller movements with an upward direction, rather than one that pulls and tweaks your body forward.
5. Leg lifts
Another popular core and abdominal strengthening exercise, leg lifts can sometimes result in the lower back taking on unnecessary stress. Lifting your legs also works your hip flexors, another muscle that interacts with your back. Tight hip flexors can contribute to back pain.
How do you get active if you aren’t already?
Sure, it is fine to suggest that exercise for lower back pain is a great addition to your current pain treatments but what if you’re not currently active and pain prevents you from wanting to start exercising? If you’re not currently active there are a few simple things you can do to get moving.
Walking is a great first start, of course, so connect with friends in your neighborhood and use that camaraderie to motivate everyone to keep going.
You may also want to incorporate exercises into your everyday life. For example, when you’re doing laundry, don’t try to make it in one trip. Those steps up and down to the laundry room can keep you moving throughout the day. Vacuuming, sweeping, and dusting all take some level of exercise to accomplish. Move as much as you can every day to keep up with your exercise.
The best way to treat any chronic pain condition is to recognize that your entire body is connected. It is also reliant on a positive mental outlook and your mood can affect your physical experiences. Exercise for lower back pain is one part of the care for lower back pain, but you do have other options.
If you need a more coordinated approach to your care, or are looking for a specific diagnosis for your pain, click the button below to talk to a PainDoctor.com certified pain specialist. They’ll work closely with you to help you find the care you need, so you can get back to the life you love.