Cardio exercises and activities boost heart health and improve your quality of life—but they can also pose a problem for people with back pain. How can you get an aerobic workout without aggravating your pain, or making your condition worse? Or maybe you’ve had disc problems in the past and want to get back to exercise, but are worried about bringing it on again.
The good news is there are workouts for individuals suffering with back pain that can get your heart rate up without impacting your back. This article covers the best cardio workouts for lower back pain—and exercises that should be avoided to prevent doing further damage.
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Best Cardio For Lower Back Pain
Whether or not you can do the exercises below depends on your level of back pain. You should only do as much as your body will allow, and it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor before trying any type of exercise. The following cardio exercises are least aggravating to your back:
- Swimming—Swimming provides a way to exercise without putting additional stress on the joints in your spine. Since your buoyancy in the water essentially cancels out the forces of gravity, very little stress is transmitted to your joints. Therefore, swimming is much easier on the joints than many other forms of exercise. You get a full body workout, and it can be done with high intensity, depending on how fast or long you swim. Swim laps, do water aerobics, walk around the pool, or just get in the water and jog in place—whatever your back tolerates the best.
- Elliptical machine—Elliptical machines provide a smooth glide, not a pounding jumping or running. Working out on a stationary bike will also exercise your cardiovascular system in a similar way, without causing a lot of issues for your back.
- Walking outside/walking on a treadmill—Walking is an excellent choice for patients with bulging discs, as it stimulates blood flow and oxygen to the cells. It also helps to keep your discs hydrated, which is important for healing. To give your heart a workout, you can walk faster, or up steeper hills. You can do the same on a treadmill, increasing the incline or the pace. And it offers you the additional stability of handrails.
- Low-impact aerobic activities—While you should definitely avoid Crossfit (see more on that subject below), that doesn’t mean you can’t do any type of aerobics. You can still do them, but in a low-impact style that doesn’t create the kind of pounding that aggravates your spine. Instead of jumping up and down, for instance, simply step up and step down, or step in place. If you’re taking an aerobics or Zumba class, let your instructor know about your back pain. Just about every well-trained exercise instructor will have alternative movements you can do instead.
Yoga: The Good-for-your-back Exercise
Some exercises, like yoga, are not only easy on your back, but also beneficial for it.1 Although yoga is not categorized as an aerobic exercise, it may be just as beneficial for your health, as stretches promote mobility, increase flexibility, and can also help strengthen your core—all the muscles that attach to and help stabilize the spine and the pelvis—which creates spinal stability. In fact, I always recommend yoga to my patients as the number one exercise for the back.
As with any type of exercise, don’t start off doing the maximum amount, either in terms of time or intensity. Always start off slow, build up your strength and endurance, and give your body time to adapt. Over time you’ll increase your cardio fitness, stamina, and strength.
Exercises To Avoid With Lower Back Pain
Some types of cardio workouts put pressure on the lower back and strain your abdomen, which could cause inflammatory issues or disc herniations, putting more pressure on your nerves. Any kind of exercise that puts pressure on the affected joints and overexerts your abdominal muscles should be avoided. Exercises to avoid with lower back pain include:
- CrossFit—this branded workout is defined as “constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity.” The intense, non-stop pace of CrossFit includes a variety of cardio activities, heavy lifting, flexibility training, and more. It’s a popular sport, but one that may have negative effects on health and fitness in all areas; it has also been shown to have higher rates of injury than other fitness activities, with low back injuries among the highest.2
- Traditional aerobics classes—Traditional aerobics classes (and step aerobics) are high-impact because they include a lot of jumping and bouncing. These activities are jarring to your lower back and are likely to make your current condition worse.
- Running/jogging/hard walking—Similar to jumping and bouncing, the pounding of your feet on the pavement is not good for diseased discs and joints.
- Repetitive stair-climbing—Overworking your joints and the impact of repetitive stepping could have a negative effect on your injured back.
Whatever type of workout you’re doing, always listen to your body. If your lower back (or any part of your body) hurts, stop— call your doctor to discuss what type of aerobic activities are best for you, before resuming exercise.
1 Tilbrook HE, Cox H, Hewitt CE, Kang'ombe AR, Chuang L, Jayakody S, et al. Yoga for Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med. 2011;155:569–578. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-155-9-201111010-00003
2 Weisenthal, B. M., Beck, C. A., Maloney, M. D., DeHaven, K. E., & Giordano, B. D. (2014). Injury rate and patterns among CrossFit athletes. Orthopaedic journal of sports medicine, 2(4), 2325967114531177.