Exercise is vital to recovery and to maintaining a healthy spine. Consider it part of long-term health management and risk reduction. Regular exercise is the most basic way to combat back and neck problems. However, if you already have an injury or damage to your spine, talk to your doctor or physical therapist (PT) before you start an exercise routine, to make sure the exercises you choose are effective and safe for your particular case.
Why exercise? Scientific studies show that people who exercise regularly have far fewer problems with their spine. Exercise helps strengthen the muscles in your back that connect to your spine. Exercise can reduce your risk of falls and injuries. It can also strengthen your abdomen (your belly), arms, and legs, which reduces back strain. Stretching reduces risk of muscle spasms. In addition, weight bearing exercises help prevent loss of bone mass caused by osteoporosis, reducing your risk of fractures. Aerobic exercise, the type that gets your heart pumping and pulse rate up, has been shown to be a good pain reliever as well. The natural chemicals of the body that combat pain — called endorphins (en-dor-fins) — are released during exercise and actually reduce your pain.
Exercises will help maximize your physical abilities including:
- Flexibility — exercises that increase flexibility help to reduce pain and make it easier to keep your spine in a healthy position. Flexibility exercises are helpful for establishing safe movement. Tight muscles cause imbalance in spinal movements, which can make it easier to injure your spine. Gentle stretching increases flexibility, eases pain, and reduces the chance of re-injury.
- Stabilization — “core” muscles are the muscles located closer to the center of your body and act as stabilizers. These key muscles are trained to help you position your spine safely and to hold your spine steady as you perform routine activities. These muscles form a stable platform, which allows you to move your arms and legs with precision. If the stabilizers are not doing their job, your spine may be overstressed by daily activities.
- Coordination — strong muscles need to be coordinated. As the strength of the spinal muscles increases, it becomes important to train these muscles to work together. Learning any physical activity takes practice. Muscles must be trained so that the physical activity is under control. Spine muscles that are trained to control safe movement help reduce the chance of re-injury.
- Conditioning — improving your overall fitness level will help you recover from spine problems. Fitness conditioning involves safe forms of aerobic exercise. The term aerobic means “with oxygen.” When using oxygen as they work, muscles are better able to move continuously, rather than in spurts. Examples of aerobic exercise include:
- Swimming laps
- Walking on a treadmill
- Using a cross country ski machine
- Using a stair stepper
If you decide you want some extra conditioning, always check with your doctor or therapist before beginning a program on your own. It is important that you choose an aerobic activity you enjoy. This will help you stick with it, so you reap the long-term benefits that come with a well-rounded exercise program.