About 80% of people will experience a significant bout of low back pain at some point during their lifetime. Many of these people will have several episodes of significant back pain, and some will go on to develop back pain that bothers them on an almost daily basis. Most back pain develops suddenly after lifting a heavy object or spraining the muscles in the back during vigorous exercise. Another common cause of back pain is poor posture at work or during prolonged periods of sitting. This type of back pain is often the result of the muscles that support the spinal column becoming weaker over time. Doctors refer to this type of weakness as “deconditioning,” which describes the body’s natural response to inactivity and little exercise. As the muscles that support the spine and trunk become weaker, they are less able to withstand heavy lifting, or support the spine in its normal position, and as a result, the entire back becomes sore and tired. Exercise is the best way to prevent this type of pain from occurring.
Several studies have shown that regular cardiovascular exercise, like swimming, bicycling, jogging, or hiking, is the most beneficial form of exercise for treating and preventing back pain. This type of exercise, which promotes good health in general, has been shown to be as effective as nearly every other type of physical therapy program or exercise regime. In addition, this is the type of exercise that is easy to do, enjoyable, and definitely good for you. If you can find the time for half an hour or an hour of brisk walking, bicycling, or jogging several times a week, your back will thank you for it for the rest of your life.
Telling you that regular exercise has a positive effect on low back pain is a bit like providing you with “chicken soup” advice; meaning that your mother probably could have told you that maintaining a strong and healthy back would be good for you. The reality is a bit more complicated. Most people don’t know where to begin, they may be afraid they will hurt their back further, and once they get started, they often give up too early. To make matters worse, many people are already overweight, out of shape, and have developed habits and lifestyles that are inherently unhealthy.
Once I start, how can I avoid giving up?
Most people who start a regular exercise program give it up after a short period of time. While there are a lot of reasons that they choose to stop exercising regularly, they often boil down to a few simple reasons. Its often hard to find the time to exercise, the motivation to get out there starts to slip after a while, and its easy to slip back into old routines. In order to avoid this from happening to you, here a few simple suggestions:
Find ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine.
Ride your bike to work once a week. If you can’t ride your bike to work, park in the farthest parking spot possible and walk around the building once before starting your day. Take the stairs. The amount of exercise that simple modifications to your daily routine like these add up to over the course of a year can be very impressive. Once you start this type of a routine, it is often easier to stick with than the idea of driving to the gym for half an hour everyday after work.
Find a partner and create common goals.
When your motivation starts to slip, having a partner who will drag you outside can be a lifesaver. This type of a partnership is often better if you have similar goals in terms of weight loss, healthy eating habits, and the amount of exercise that you want to work up to. Chose someone who lives close by, perhaps even your spouse, and write your goals down. Put specific dates and amounts in your plan for increasing the amount of exercise that you want to do together. Think of ways to reward yourselves when you meet your goals, and write them down.
If all else fails, pay someone else to motivate you.
Personal trainers have become very popular, and the primary reason is that they keep track of your progress, give you lots of encouragement, and they schedule your workouts for you. While they can be intimidating at first, since many of them are impossibly fit young specimens in tight shorts and a tank top, they can be an incredible resource. Find one that you like, pay for a couple of months up front, and you’ll be amazed at how much progress you’ll make over time.
Why is exercise good for the spine?
While many doctors (and also your mother) will tell you that exercise is definitely an important part of your overall good health and well-being, many people who have a sore back think of exercise as the last thing that they would want to do, and they often wonder how exercise would make a painful back feel better. Think of the muscles of the trunk and spine as being analogous to the supporting wires of a sailboat mast. If the mast does not have any supporting wires, it is very flimsy and likely to topple over. Without any support, it will be unable to withstand the forces of the wind in the sails and the entire structure is likely to fail. The muscles that surround the spinal column serve a similar purpose. They help to balance the spine during normal activities and athletic exercise and prevent the weight of the body from being carried by the spine in a harmful way. The stronger and better conditioned these muscles are, the more support there is for the spine, which results in better balancing of the loads that the spine must carry during daily life.
Unfortunately, when people develop back pain, they have a tendency to want to avoid all types of exercise, and become more sedentary rather than more active. This can become a bit of a vicious cycle, because avoiding exercise when your back hurts causes the muscles of your back to become weaker and weaker, which makes them even more susceptible to injury.
This is not to say that you need to run a marathon the day after you strained your back while moving into your new home. However, as doctors have learned more and more about the causes and treatment of acute back pain, they have prescribed shorter and shorter periods of rest immediately after developing a back strain. In the past, people used to be advised to spend a significant amount of time in bed, waiting for their back to feel better. Today, we recognize that the best treatment for a back sprain or strain is early mobilization and a relatively rapid return to normal activities. Most doctors recommend a brief period of rest, generally one or two days, during which most patients are advised to take a course of anti-inflammatory medications in order to help reduce the pain and inflammation. After this period of rest, it is generally advisable to return to your normal activities and also begin gently exercising, especially walking or swimming, in order to stretch out your muscles and help them to recover. As soon as possible, you should restart your regular exercise regime, especially those exercises that have been specifically designed to help stabilize the trunk and spine.