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7 Ways Exercise Helps Relieve Back Pain

Photo by Becca Matimba

When you feel a bout of back pain creep in, is your first instinct to lay down and relax on the couch? You may want to rethink your backache Rx.

“Our body responds to movement extremely positively and in a number of ways,” says Eric Robertson, PT, DPT, a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopaedic physical therapy and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. To name just a few: staying active promotes circulation, organ function and delivers nutrition to your joints. All of those things combine to prevent back pain — but they can also help treat aches when they arise.

So if you’re a part of the 80 percent of adults who will suffer from back aches, listen in: New guidelines from the American College of Physicians suggest non-drug options are best for beating back problems. And that includes exercise for back pain relief. Here are seven reasons why being active may be your saving grace.

RELATED: 5 No-Equipment Back Exercises You Need in Your Life

7 Reasons You Should Exercise for Back Pain Relief

1. Exercise helps you recover.

The majority of back pain isn’t serious, says Robertson. In fact, most cases last a few days to a few weeks and heal on their own, according to the National Institutes of Health. That’s why experts generally recommend continuing your daily activities when you feel discomfort. For example, if you walk your dog in the morning, keep up your pup date. If you’re a runner, go ahead and fit in that 5K.

Keep in mind, there are a few clues that your back pain is something you need to see a doctor about, says Robertson. Make an appointment if you have unrelenting pain and no position feels comfortable. And take note if you have any neurological changes in your legs (like tingling, numbness or weakness) or experience any bladder or bowel issues.

RELATED: 5 Exercise Modifications to Ease Lower Back Pain

2. Running strengthens your spine.

Speaking of running, science shows it has your back. A 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that a regular long-distance running regimen improves the health of intervertebral discs (which help absorb shock to the spine) by keeping them more hydrated and nourished. The researchers also found benefits from jogging, speed walking and regular walking. The key for all of the above: running with good posture and technique. (You can brush up on that here.)

RELATED: Why I Started Running — And Never Stopped

3. Core work keeps you stable.

Core exercises aren’t all about that six-pack. One review in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that core strengthening, specifically, was superior to resistance training when it comes to alleviating chronic lower back pain. The muscles of your midsection include those in the front of your body (aka your abs), the muscles in your back and around your spine, as well as your hip muscles, pelvic floor and diaphragm, says Robertson. “These deep, supporting muscles help stabilize your back as you move,” he says. Make ‘em strong to move your spine sans pain.

4. There’s nothing like total-body strength, plus cardio.

A program that combines strength training and walking can boost spinal function and reduce pain in overweight individuals, according to recent research. That’s likely because it helps balance and strengthen back muscles, as well as boost blood flow to tissues in the area, which can speed healing. In addition to bettering back health, this cardio and strength combo program also burned body fat, which may help reduce the load on the spine, too.

5. Yoga is like a gentle back massage.

With its soothing poses, breathing techniques and relaxation benefits, fitting in a few oms can do good for your spine. In a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers compared people taking weekly yoga classes, visits with a physical therapist, or standard education (such as a self-help book on back pain). After three months, the yoga and physical therapy groups experienced similar improvements in pain levels and were less likely to use pain meds. Time to say namaste.

RELATED: 8 Yoga Poses to Help Ease Lower Back Pain

6. Tai chi is a back-bolstering activity.

With roots in Chinese culture, tai chi is a sequence of slow, meditative movements, which help reduce more than just your stress levels. In a 2016 review of 18 randomized controlled trials that looked at tai chi for chronic pain conditions, researchers found that it can relieve lower back pain after 10 to 28 weeks of practice.

7. Staying couch-bound stymies healing.

Staying in your seat all day can affect your ability to heal quickly and that can lock you into a cycle of pain, says Robertson. “When you stop moving in an effort to protect the joint, over time, the joint becomes more sensitive. The result is that you need less stimulation to make the body part hurt again,” he explains. The remedy to prevent a touchy, irritable back from getting worse? Get up and get moving.