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How to Exercise With Neck and Back Pain

A large correlation exists between weight gain and spine related ailments. Even as little as 10 pounds over ideal body weight can impact your body’s mechanics and the load that is placed on the spine and joints. The spine is designed to carry your body weight in a balanced and evenly distributed manner with the vertebrae (bones) providing structure and the discs providing the cushion. Over time the discs and joints in the spine can degenerate. With increased body weight, the discs and joints must work harder and carry more load which can accelerate the degeneration process.

One of the most common questions I hear from patients is, “Doc, how can I lose the weight?” Weight loss can be a challenge for everyone, particularly for individuals struggling with neck or back pain. Many patients desire to be more physically active but feel apprehensive of how exercise might aggravate their pain, which leads to avoidance of these activities. Over time this cycle of worry can lead to a pattern called fear avoidance behavior. Our goal is to alleviate pain so that patients can safely begin exercise and physical activity without fear of discomfort. 

Regular physical activity confers many health benefits to not only your joints but to all organ systems. The American Heart Association recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of exercise per week. Here are some safe ways to initiate exercise without aggravating neck or back pain. As always, be sure to discuss these exercises with your doctor prior to beginning any workout program.

  1. Physical therapy- Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy as a conservative and effective way to treat your neck or back pain.  A physical therapist that specializes in the spine will closely assess your biomechanics and determine the best course of care.  Your physical therapist will help fix your pain, safely initiate physical activity, and make recommendations to implement exercises and sport-specific training for a customized treatment plan.  Your physical therapist will also direct your care towards your specific activity goals so that you can get back to doing things that you love such as golf, tennis, running, etc.
  2. Walking- Walking is one of the most important strategies for managing your neck and back pain as well as starting the weight reduction process.  Walking provides the optimal load to both the neck and back to allow for improved circulation to the discs, joints and nerves in the spinal region.  While running may burn more calories which will help with weight loss, the extra stress on the joints and spinal region may cause more pain.  Therefore, running is typically not recommended for patients with spinal issues.  Ideally, walking can be performed 20-30 continuously on a daily basis.   If your overall endurance and pain limits you, feel free to break it up into manageable segments during the day.  Don’t forget to lace up some quality shoes to make it even better!
  3. Stationary bicycle- Cycling is a great option for many reasons. As a low-impact activity, cycling eliminates the pounding that running or jogging can place on the joints. A seated stationary bicycle such as a recumbent bike is beneficial to patients with diagnoses like spinal stenosis or lumbar spondylosis because the forward bend at the waist lessens compression on the spinal nerve roots and posterior joints, causing less nerve pain in the legs and low back. Cycling is great for people with knee or hip osteoarthritis because it promotes active range of motion to these joints. Cycling provides great cardiovascular strength for your heart and lungs, which in turn increases caloric burn and weight loss.
  4. Aquatic therapy- Utilizing a pool is beneficial for many reasons. The buoyancy takes pressure off of painful joints and allows you to move freely from gravity with the added resistance of water. No lap swimming is required. Simply walking laps of a shallow pool, performing light aqua jogging, or adding resistance with aquatic dumbbells are great ways to get in shape. Many gym memberships include a pool. Sometimes your doctor can refer you to an aquatic therapy center which may be covered by your insurance.
  5. Yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi- These gentle exercises can help maintain strength, flexibility, and balance. Some yoga poses may be too advanced for patients with back and neck pain, so be sure to ask your instructor for modifications. Pilates tends to emphasize more neutral positions which may be a better choice to protect your spine. In addition to increasing flexibility and balance, Tai Chi can help reduce stress and anxiety. Generally, these forms of exercise are inexpensive and require no special equipment. 

In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Success, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” Every good habit begins with a single step. Here at Spine Team Texas, we feel eager to help you take the first step to leading a more healthy, active lifestyle free from pain.