An achy back makes it easy to blow off your workouts. But any doctor, physical therapist, or trainer will tell you that exercising is probably the best thing for your back: It can actually speed your recovery and help prevent pain down the road.
The only hitch is that you must avoid moves that will make your problem worse, says Bob Fischer, a personal trainer in Southampton, PA, who specializes in training men and women over age 50. Once you've seen a doctor to rule out potentially serious causes of your back pain, it's time to get moving.
"If your back pain is acute, gentle exercise like walking boosts circulation, which sends a fresh supply of oxygenated blood to the place where you feel pain," he explains. "This reduces the inflammation that's causing your discomfort, helping you feel better faster."
Fischer adds that once the intense pain phase has passed and you're dealing with more of a chronic, nagging issue, strength training is key.
"It's important to work the key muscles surrounding the back, such as the glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals, to help support the back and reduce future incidences of pain," he says.
The catch is making sure those exercises don't cause further harm.
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Going from laying flat to sitting upright puts a tremendous amount of strain on your spine, says Fischer, particularly if your core is weak--a common issue for people with back pain.
"When you don't have the muscles in the front of your body to power you as you sit up, your low back ends up doing the brunt of the work, and that will exacerbate pain," he says.
Exercise to Do Instead: Half Crunches
While most people will tell you to hold a plank, Fischer says half-crunches are actually better--as long as you only come up to a 20-degree angle as opposed to a 90-degree angle with a sit-up. (Your shoulders should come about 5 or 6 inches off the floor.)
"I like this exercise because it gets your upper abs to work without putting strain on the back," says Fischer. "Holding your body weight in plank while trying to keep your back straight can put a lot of pressure on your back muscles."
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Squatting over a barbell and raising the weight up using your legs can help strengthen your back as well--provided you use proper form. "Too often, I see people at the gym doing deadlifts with their low backs rounded excessively, which compresses your vertebral discs," he says.
Exercise to Do Instead: Leg Presses on a Machine
This move strengthens your hamstring and glutes, just like deadlifts. However, it takes your back out of the equation and minimizes the chance of your body shifting into poor form.
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