Exercise for Back Pain

Get up and at ’em. British researchers analyzed the results of 10 studies in which a total of 3,222 people with back pain were advised to either get bed rest or stay active. None of the studies found any benefit in bed rest. In fact, the people who stayed in bed recovered more slowly than those who didn’t. After a back injury, your best bet is to return to your normal routine as soon as you can, says Wilbert E. Fordyce, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Be gentle to your back. Most experts recommend resuming exercise within 2 to 3 days of the onset of pain.

For his patients with back problems, Brian Shiple, D.O., director of primary-care sports medicine for Crozer-Keystone Health System in Springfield, Pennsylvania, prescribes a combination of gentle stretching and walking, swimming, or cycling. He recommends working out for about 1/2 hour, 3 to 5 days a week.

“Just make sure that your exercise program is moderate and doesn’t reinjure your back;” says physical therapist Eileen Vollowitz, founder of Back Designs, a store in Berkeley, California, that specializes in back¬≠care products. “Anything that pounds, jars, or suddenly twists your back isn’t appropriate. So forget high-impact aerobics, racquet sports, and most team sports.”

Tai Chi

Enroll in a tai chi class. If you’re looking for a no-impact, no-sweat way to work out while your back gets better, try tai chi. In one study, researchers instructed 51 people with chronic lower-back pain to either practice tai chi or continue their usual back-care programs. After 6 weeks, the people doing tai chi reported significant reductions in pain.


Strike a pose against pain. When Nashville pathologist Mary Pullig Schatz, M.D., developed chronic lower-back pain, she tried almost everything for relief. Nothing helped. Then just as she was about to agree to surgery, she decided to give yoga a shot. She felt better, so she kept it up. The more yoga classes she took, the less pain she had.

Dr. Schatz was so pleased with the results of her yoga therapy that she eventually became a certified Iyengar yoga instructor. She also wrote Back Care Basics, a yoga-based guide to back self-care. “Yoga cured my bad back;’ she says. “It’s a gentle activity that builds strength and promotes flexibility.”

Among the various yoga styles, Iyengar yoga is the best choice for back pain. Certified Iyengar instructors learn how to adapt yoga postures to provide maximum benefit and minimum harm to people with lower­back problems.