Exercise for Back Pain - How Exercise Can Help

Man with back pain
Getty Images/Valentin Russanov

As I write this article, I'm sitting at my desk with utterly perfect posture - body aligned, feet flat on the floor and abs engaged. Okay, I confess...the only reason I'm sitting so perfectly is because I'm writing about back pain and that always reminds me I should sit up straight. Find me ten minutes from now and I'll be sprawled out and hunched over as usual.

Back pain has a number of causes, but one of the most common happens to be what I'm doing right now and, most likely, what you're doing as you read this article: Sitting.

If you spend a lot of your time sitting, you probably have the same problem I do - frequent back pain. Since sitting isn't something we're going to stop doing (at least not completely), we have to look for other ways to manage this kind of chronic back pain and exercise is just one of them.

Back Pain Action Plan

Managing and preventing back pain isn't easy, but it can be done as long as you're willing to make some changes in how you live. Your first step is to determine what's causing your back pain and if you have a condition that needs special treatment. These resources can help educate you about common back problems:

  • Back Pain Overview. This article covers different category of back problems from genetic conditions to common back injuries.
  • Causes of Lower Back Pain. Our Orthopedics Guide provides detailed information about the various causes of back pain.
  • Lower Back Pain. This comprehensive guide covers everything you ever wanted to know about lower back pain.

    If you and your doctor have determined that your back pain is caused by lifestyle habits, read through the following common causes of lower back pain to see where you could make some changes. The included action plans will give you some ideas for how to manage and prevent lower back pain.

    Sitting too much

    How do you feel after you've been sitting for a long time?

    Do you feel stiff or sore? Does your back feel tight? What about that tension in your neck and shoulders? I'm a firm believer that sitting for long periods of time is one reason so many of us are in pain. You don't have to stop sitting completely, but there are ways to minimize the damage.

    Action Plan. The following ideas will help you move a bit more as well as find ways to sit more comfortably. Choose at least one of them to try on a daily basis:

    1. Take short breaks. Set an alarm on your computer, PDA, etc. to go off every 30 minutes. Take at least one minute to stand, stretch, walk or change positions.
    2. Stand while you work. What tasks could you do while standing? Some ideas: talking on the phone, reading your mail, working on the computer (if you can raise your monitor) goofing off, etc. Choose just one on your list and make a new rule that you'll only do it while standing.
    3. Sit on an exercise ball or cushion. If you can get away with it, try sitting on an exercise ball for a few minutes several times throughout the day (all day may be a bit much on your lower back). You can roll around on it while sitting to help stretch the back and you'll be forced to avoid slumping to stay on the ball. If that's not an option, try a cushion like the one offered at Sissel, which promotes good posture.

      What other ideas could you come up with to sit less throughout the day? Make your own list and choose one to work on each day until it becomes a habit.

      Bad Posture and Tight Muscles

      Bad posture is another big contributor to back pain. If you're like me, you start your day with good posture but gradually end up slumping, sprawling or hunching when your body gets tired. Monitoring posture can turn into a full-time job, but there are some simple ways to make small changes in your body position.

      Continue Reading: Causes and Solutions for Lower Back Pain

      Action Plan. Incorporate at least one of the following ideas into your daily life:

      1. Set a reminder to go off every 20 minutes. Use that time to check to see if you're sitting with your back straight, shoulders back and feet flat with knees even or slightly higher than the hips.
      2. Be more ergonomic. What small changes could you make to your workspace to support your body? If you need back support while sitting, place a rolled up towel behind your back. If you need to raise your legs, try resting your feet on a footstool. Change at least one aspect of your work area to help keep your body aligned.
      1. Create more flexibility. At least three times each day, take five minutes to perform this stretching workout at your desk.
      2. Try a daily stretching routine. Try this new workout, Strengthen & Stretch the Back, a short gentle routine targeting the tight muscles of the back or choose one of the following flexibility workouts to do once a day:

      Being overweight

      Carrying extra weight is another common cause of back pain and it can also affect your other joints, ligaments and tendons. You already know that exercise and diet is the key to weight loss and if you already have a weight loss plan in place, you're ahead of the game. But, if you need a jumpstart, check out the following simple ideas for slowly losing weight.

      Action Plan. Choose just one of the following ideas for getting started on weight loss.

      1. Sign up for a free weight loss and exercise programs: 
      1. Plan your workouts. Cardio and strength training can help you burn extra calories and lose weight so, if you're not exercising, get out your calendar and choose at least three days you can exercise in the next week. Write down what time you'll workout, how long you'll exercise and what type of activity you'll do. Check out my Beginner's Corner for specifics in getting started with exercise.
      1. Use a pedometer. Wear a pedometer throughout the day and keep track of your steps. Each day, try to add an extra 100 steps until you're up to at least 10,000 steps a day.
      2. Change something in your diet. Another way to lose weight is to cut some calories from your diet. Choose just one thing you eat every day and find a lower-calorie substitute you can enjoy. Could you trade the donut for some fruit, yogurt and granola? Could you live without that afternoon Coke? Cut out just 100 calories each day and you'll lose a pound in about a month without even breaking a sweat.

      If these ideas don't work for you, come up with your own action plan.

      Not exercising enough

      Sitting too much is one problem with back pain but even if you move around more, that may not be enough to combat back problems. It isn't enough to not be sedentary...you still need to exercise to strengthen your body and your heart. Some back pain can be caused by weak muscles, so getting involved in a complete exercise program that includes both cardio and strength training may be one way to manage and prevent back pain.

      Action Plan.

      1. Try a strength training workout. At least two (non-consecutive) days in the next week, try this Intermediate Strength Workout or visit my Workout Center for other ideas.
      2. Try a cardio workout. At least three days in the next week, try this Cardio Interval Workout or choose your own activity and do it for at least 30 minutes at a moderate intensity.
      3. Choose a timesaver workout. Try one of the 10-Minute Timesaver Workouts listed or create your own quick 10-minute workouts to do at least once each day.
      4. Start a walking program. Choose one of Wendy's free walking programs or set up your own routine so that you're walking at least 3-5 days a week for about 30 minutes.

      Just tackling one area of your daily life, whether it's sitting less or exercising more, can make a big difference in getting rid of chronic back pain. The key is to work on these things every day until they become second nature to you. You may be tempted to give up on these small, simple tasks over time, but they really do make a difference.

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