6 of the Easiest Exercises on Your Back

When you have lower back pain, you might want to retreat to bed, but that’s one of the worst things you can do. Instead, try these gentle forms of exercise.

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Lower back pain is so common that statistically speaking, almost everyone will have it at some point. With this kind of prevalence, you’d think there would be a few simple remedies, like there are for fevers and heartburn.

Back pain gentle exercisesWhen you have back pain, don't just sit there--try these gentle exercises for faster relief.

Of course, there’s nothing simple about back pain relief. There are myriad treatment options, in part because there are so many causes. You might want to just retreat to bed, but staying sedentary is actually one of the worst things you can do for your back painv. No matter why your back aches, exercise can usually help. The trick is finding which type is best for you.

“You need to know exactly what’s causing your back pain because that changes what you should or shouldn’t be doing for exercise,” says Ai Mukai, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Texas Orthopedics in Austin.

In 2020, a review in the journal Pain and Therapy evaluated some of the best exercises for chronic low-back pain. Here’s what the authors found – as well as additional perspective from Dr. Mukai.

1. Physical therapy: McKenzie exercises

McKenzie method can be very effective for acute disc herniation pain and sciatica.  The point of this type of therapy is to figure out if there is a position that helps the pain “centralize”, correct any restrictions of range of motion, and take the pressure off the area that is being compressed or is inflamed. 

If you go to physical therapy for low-back pain, McKenzie exercises might be part of your regular routine. They’re strength-building moves designed to help support the spine, and they involve both range-of-movement work and sustained positions.

To maximize your improvement, see a physical therapist with official McKenzie training. It may help you get better with fewer physical therapy visits, according to research in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.

2. Home or studio workouts: Pilates

There’s more to Pilates than meets the eye – that is, if your eye sees Pilates as a hobby mostly for the very fit, smoothie-sipping crowd. The truth is Pilates is a wonderful practice for people with chronic low-back pain. Like McKenzie exercises, it requires a lot of “sustained holds,” meaning you stick in one position, usually one that strengthens your trunk muscles.

“While yoga is often touted as good for the back, it involves a lot of deep bends and twists and can hurt your back in some cases. Pilates I think is better because strengthens your muscles with small movements,” Dr. Mukai says. “And if you do it on a [special machine called a] reformer, there’s built-in support for the spine.” 

Be aware that Pilates may not be better for your back than any other low-impact exercise. But if you’re looking for a low-key, muscle-toning workout that can ease your chronic low-back pain, too, Pilates may be a good choice.

Back pain gentle exercise pilatesThe Pilates reformer stabilizes your spine.

3. Aquatic exercise: Deep-water running and more

If you have access to a pool, you have access to back pain relief. Aquatic exercise allows you to be more or less weightless, taking pressure and stress off your spine.  

In one study, deep-water running (running with water at shoulder-height) three times a week for 15 weeks significantly improved low-back pain. In another study, a group of obese women hit the water twice a week for an hourlong aquatic exercise program. After 12 weeks, they reported improvements in pain intensity, personal care, sitting, standing, and sleeping.

4. Office exercise: Walking

Pay attention here. We know it’s easy to breeze past the billionth mention that walking is good for you. But this is a little different. Dr. Mukai literally just wants you to walk more than you usually do around your office – or wherever you work.

“You don’t have to really get your heart rate up. It’s more about not staying in the same position for a long period of time,” she says. “When you’re sitting down and focused, you can stay in an uncomfortable position for quite a while.”

She recommends you use a timer or an app that alerts you to every hour to stretch, go to the bathroom, or otherwise get up from your chair and walk around a bit.

As far as walking for regular exercise goes, of course that’s a fine idea – one you’ve heard many times before. Pain, disability, quality of life, and more improve with walking (as well as other exercise) when you have chronic low back pain. 

5. Living-room moves: Stabilization exercises

Just like you can get your walking done at the office, you can get your strengthening workouts done at home, right in front of the TV. When you strengthen the muscles in your trunk – especially your neck and upper back – those muscles in turn stabilize the spine. As a result, you have less pain and better function, Dr. Mukai says.

You can do a stretch standing against the wall and doing “snow angel” type movement bringing your arms up and down.  You can also pull your elbows down into you back pockets, which stops the hyperactive trapezius from tensing up.  Pushing your head back into the headrest while driving can help avoid the head forward posture most of us get into when driving or texting.

Start with a visit to a physical therapist, who can recommend the best stabilization exercises for your back. (Be sure you know how to do them without supervision, too.) These may include knee-to-chest moves while lying on your back, or abdominal crunches while you balance on a large exercise ball. 

6. Classes or videos: Chinese mind-body practices

Tai Chi and Qigong are traditional Chinese practices in which you perform slow, controlled movements that emphasize balance and focus. Both have been studied for their benefits for a range of musculoskeletal problems, including back pain. Both can reduce pain, disability, and other symptoms associated with chronic low-back pain.  

Updated on: 01/20/21
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