Will Aerobic Exercise Help My Low Back Pain?

Question: I read your answer about physical therapy and spinal stenosis exercises, and you focused on stretches and such for relieving pain. Is it also necessary to do aerobic exercise when you have spinal stenosis? And if so, can you give recommendations for good forms of cardio? I'm an 89-year-old with spinal stenosis, and I try to ride a stationary bike for 20 minutes 2 times a week, but I get so tired. What else can I try?|
—Walker, WV
Active senior exercising in the parkAnswer: I do recommend aerobic exercise for anyone, but especially for people with spine conditions. Aerobic exercise increases the blood flow to your tissues, and people with high levels of cardiovascular fitness generally do better dealing with spinal problems.

However, there are a couple of caveats with my first statement. The biggest one is: before anyone (especially someone with a spine condition) starts an exercise program, they should check with their doctor, who will be able to give clearance for exercise.

For example, someone with cardiovascular complications (heart problems) may have restrictions regarding aerobic exercise. Your doctor should give you a full physical exam to make sure your body is ready for exercise.

The second caveat concerns the type of aerobic exercise. For people with spinal stenosis, I generally recommend low-impact aerobic exercise. Walking and swimming are excellent examples of low-impact aerobic exercise. They can increase your heart rate, but they are easier on your body.

Riding a stationary bike, just as you've been doing, is a good form of low-impact aerobic exercise. It can be tiring, but if your doctor (or physical therapist) has recommended it, I encourage you to stick with it. As you're biking, you are building up your cardiovascular endurance, and that's a good thing; it can help you recover more quickly.

You don't mention pain while riding the bike, but if exercise does start to increase your back pain, let your doctor or physical therapist know right away.

That old expression of "No pain, no gain" doesn't work for spine patients. If what you're doing increases your pain, you should stop. Also, many people may try to do too much too soon. Start slowly and build up your time gradually. It is more important to be successful and stick with your program over the long-term.

Keep going on your exercise plan, but if you want to mix it up a little, you can consider walking and swimming in addition to biking.

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