Embrace Your Inner Child And Say ‘On Your Bike’ To Lower Back Pain
Cycling is something we all loved doing as kids and it can also be a great way to stay active for people with chronic lower back pain. Read on to find out why.
Do you remember your favourite ever Christmas present?
I was thinking about how I would answer that myself during a quiet moment the other day and there was no doubt about it.
It was a complete no-brainer.
In fact the image that popped into my head transported me directly back to that cold and crisp Christmas morning.
And I could still vividly remember the emotions I felt as if it were happening again today.
Excitedly running down the stairs and seeing it standing there in the hallway.
All shiny, gleaming and magnificent.
Through the eyes of my 11 year-old self it looked so big and beautiful.
Was it really mine? I couldn't believe it.
And it wasn't just a present.
Because it also offered me the prospect of a world full of adventure, freedom and endless hours of fun.
An overwhelming sense of elation was pulsing through me and I couldn't wait to get outside and give it a whirl.
I ran to my parents to thank them and they in turn looked so happy that the gift they'd worked and saved so hard to buy had made their son so excited and happy.
That kind of reaction from your kids is priceless right? They had chosen well!
So what was this miraculous present that made such an impression on the younger me?
It was a brand new mountain bike.
Now I bet I'm not alone here.
As I'm sure there are lots of grown men (and women) that can relate to the exact emotions that I'm describing here when they got a new bike for Christmas too.
I mean what better present could you give to a young kid in the age before technology took over than a bike?
It certainly beat my other presents that year that's for sure (a tangerine and a Tottenham Hotspur annual if my memory serves me correctly!)
And like a dog that bike was for life and not just Christmas.
As I got years of pleasure from it.
Now you may be wondering why I'm taking you on this trip down memory lane.
Well it's because I want to encourage you to reconnect with your 11 year-old self.
Because cycling can also be a great help in the fight against back pain when it's done correctly.
The Benefits of Cycling as an Adult
So why should you take up cycling again now that you're an adult?
After all most of us can drive now so what's the point?
Well I'll offer up a couple of reasons for you.
Cycling is fun.
And it's a low-impact exercise that gives you a good aerobic exercise without putting a strain on your joints.
It also allows you to get outside and into the fresh air.
Which helps to keep you happy as well as healthy.
And it has become incredibly popular these days.
So not only are the roads and parks full of solo cyclists.
There are also plenty of cycling clubs you can join that will add social benefits to the cardiovascular benefits of the actual exercise.
And you can even use your bike to cycle into work every day.
So not only will you be able to stay active and keep your body moving, you could also save a ton of money on your commute too!
And as long as you are doing it correctly cycling can be a good activity for reducing your back pain.
Cycling Can Be Good For Your Back But Only When Done Correctly
While cycling can bring general health benefits to everyone, it has been found in scientific studies to be especially good for people with back pain.
For example, one study found that cycling to a moderate intensity reduced pain and was a safe activity for people with chronic lower back pain.
However back pain has also been found to be the 5th most common injury for leisure cyclists.
Hang on, that's a bit of a contradiction isn't it?
Well, yes it is, but there are reasons why cycling is good for some people and bad for others.
And the key is whether you are cycling correctly or not.
So for instance if your bike is too big or you ride with a bad posture it will lead to muscle imbalances.
And these imbalances are bad news as they cause your body to compensate leading to further aches and strains.
However, if you makes sure you follow good cycling practices you can avoid this.
Things such as how your bike is set up, your posture and keeping your body strengthened in the right places (I go through these in more detail in the next section).
Then you can feel the benefits that cycling has to offer for your back without any further pain.
Because just tiny alterations can make a huge difference.
For example simply adjusting the angle and height of the bike saddle has been found to reduce the likelihood of developing lower back pain in almost 70% of cyclists.
So get these things right and cycling can be great for you.
But why is that?
Well there are a few reasons.
Cycling is a low-impact exercise and as such is less jarring on your spine than other aerobic activities.
So you can get a good cardiovascular workout without the strain.
Cycling also strengthens your leg muscles and this extra strength helps to provide more support for your spine.
It also keeps your body mobile and active which will increase your range of motion and physical capabilities.
And it increases circulation which means your muscles and tissues get more oxygen and nutrients to help them to strengthen, heal and repair.
And finally the endorphins that aerobic activity create not only improve your mood and give you more energy, they also work as a natural pain killer by blocking pain signals to the brain.
So all in all cycling is pretty decent I think.
How to Make Sure You Are Cycling Safely
As I said in the previous section cycling can be just as much a cause of lower back pain as it can be a remedy for it.
So to make sure you minimise the risk of back pain from cycling (and maximise the benefits) you need to get the following three things right:
- Choosing the right bike (and adjusting it to fit you).
- Maintaining a good cycling posture.
- Making sure your body is 'bike ready'.
I'll go through these one by one now.
Choosing The Right Bike
Riding a bike that is too big for you can be a problem as it forces you to hunch over into a posture that will put extra strain on your back.
So it's vital to get a bike that fits your size.
And the ergonomic (adjustable) elements on the bike are important too.
As things such as the saddle height/angle and the handlebar height will all impact whether you feel back pain or not on your ride.
So you need a bike where you can adjust these so they are at the right level for you.
And getting a bike with good shock absorbers will make a massive difference.
As this will minimise any jarring to the body especially when you are cycling on rougher surfaces.
Now this all sounds really complicated to get right.
But if you buy your bike from a good cycle store they will have trained staff there to make sure you get one to suits your height and frame perfectly.
But if you'd rather buy online then a great beginners bike is the Schwinn Network 3.0 hybrid bike.
This is built with a mixture of comfort and versatility in mind and is great for everyday riding.
Just make sure you select the correct frame size for your height and you're good to go.
Maintaining a Good Cycling Posture
How you sit on your bike as you ride also has a big impact on whether you get back pain from cycling or not.
Because sitting with an unhealthy posture on the saddle creates strains and imbalances in your body.
So stay aware of your posture as you ride.
And some things that will help are to:
- Avoid slouching or hunching as you ride.
- Keep your arms slightly bent as you hold the handles.
- Make sure your legs hit a 90 degree angle at the top of the pedalling movement.
Making Sure Your Body is 'Bike Ready'
Although cycling gives you a good aerobic workout and strengthens your leg muscles it doesn't specifically work your core muscles.
And this can lead to a muscle imbalance and weakness in your core muscles that are responsible for supporting your spine.
Therefore it's vital to keep your core muscles strong alongside cycling.
Here's a video with some examples of the types of exercises you can do to help.:
And even though cycling strengthens your legs it is still a good idea to make sure they have a decent level of strength before you begin cycling regularly.
As this will lower the risk of you picking up any new injuries as you begin to cycle.
It's also important to make sure that your hips and hamstrings remain flexible and loose.
As this will lower the pressure on your lower back as you cycle.
And you can do this by getting into the habit of stretching regularly.
Finally makes sure you warm-up before and warm-down after your ride.
As this will keep aches and pains at bay.
Now this may seem like a lot to take in.
But you need to remain vigilant to make sure lower back pain doesn't rear it's ugly head.
And WikiHow have an easy-to-follow article that goes into more depth on how to stay safe on your bike which you can find clicking here.
How to Get Started With Cycling
So once you have found the right bike and know how to adopt a good riding posture are you good to go?
Well as I mentioned in the previous section it's vital that you build good core and leg strength before beginning to cycle and maintain it as you progress.
And the same as with any new form of exercise it is a good idea to consult your doctor before trying it to make sure it is safe for you to do.
And it's also important to start slowly and build up your cycling gradually.
So start out by going out for gentle 5-10 minute bike rides.
And then aim to increase these over time until you can ride for 30-40 minutes at a time.
But remember the magic words here...
Don't overdo it!
Because exercising to a moderate intensity is the name of the game for those of us with chronic lower back pain.
So put your competitive urges to one side.
Also try and shift positions regularly as you ride.
This is similar to advice I'd give while sitting in a chair.
As staying fixed in one position for a prolonged period is bad for your body.
So these little adjustments can keep you out of pain.
And finally try to cycle on routes with flat surfaces.
As bumpy terrain will increase the jolting on the spine which can cause you pain.
And if you want a completely jolt-free experience an exercise bike could be a good option too.
Using an Exercise Bike For Back Pain
Using a stationary exercise bike at home or at the gym can be a great way of increasing your cardiovascular fitness and lowering back pain.
This is because there is no impact on your spine.
And there are two types of exercise bike you can use for this.
- An upright exercise bike that causes you to lean forwards.
- A recumbent exercise bike with a reclining seat that causes you to lean backwards.
And they both provide very different experiences.
The upright exercise bike is very similar to an actual bike.
So you need to make sure you follow the same guidelines with the posture you use, seat height, etc.
Whereas the recumbent exercise bike fully supports your spine as you lean back.
So only your legs are pedalling and working as you exercise.
Now which one is best for you may depend on which type of back pain you have.
For instance people with spinal stenosis or osteoarthritis may feel more comfortable leaning forward.
So an upright exercise bike would be better for them.
However people with degenerative disc disease may feel more comfortable leaning backwards.
And they will be better served with the support that a recumbent bike offers.
But whichever one you prefer, using one of these bikes can really help you to stay fit and active.
And every gym will have a good selection of both types of bike for you to use.
You can also buy one for yourself to use at home.
And doing so may make it easier to motivate yourself to use regularly.
Plus you can watch a movie or sports while you use it!
And if you want an idea of which bikes to go for I've recommended a couple below.
So a good upright exercise bike for home use is the Sunny Health and Fitness Pro Indoor Cycling Bike.
This one has a fully adjustable seat and handlebars so you can stay comfortable and maintain the perfect riding posture for your back.
And if you'd prefer the sitting back position, then the Schwinn 230 Recumbent Bike is a great choice.
This one has increased lumbar support for your lower back in the back of the seat.
And both of these bikes are great depending on which riding position is more comfortable for you.
Just don't fall into the common trap of buying one and only using it as a makeshift clothes horse!
Want More Intensity? Try Spinning!
If you enjoy using stationary bikes but feel you want a little bit more of a challenge then spinning may be a good option for you.
Although be careful what you wish for.
Because a spinning class will really get your blood pumping!
Now spinning is a fairly new craze but classes are available at most gyms nowadays.
And again I'll forego this by saying don't overdo it.
As spinning is really only suitable for a few people who have high fitness levels and back pain that isn't quite as severe as others.
But if you can handle it without getting yourself into more pain then a spinning class can be fun and challenging.
As these classes are really high energy, accompanied by loud music, and offer a completely different experience to a relaxing bike ride.
And unlike regular cycling your abs and core muscles also get a workout with spinning.
As you change position from sitting to standing at various intervals as you go.
To give you an idea of what a spinning class looks like take a look at the video below.
Makes you feel knackered just watching it, eh?
So if that looks too intense (and let's be honest for most of us it will be) then stick with the outdoor cycling or regular exercise bikes.
As both of these can give you great benefits for your back pain as well as improving your fitness.
So did I convince you to reconnect with your younger self?
I hope so.
Because if cycling is something you think you will enjoy doing then it can be a great way for you to stay active.
As not only will it improve your fitness levels.
It will also strengthen your leg muscles that help support the spine, increase circulation, and release endorphins that block pain signals from reaching the brain.
Which will leave you feeling fit, happy and healthy.
And this positive feeling will make it much easier to manage your chronic lower back pain.
So as long as you use the right bike, maintain a good posture, and keep your core muscles strong then cycling can really help you.
And you can even use stationary bikes at home or in the gym if the thought of cycling outside doesn't appeal.
So give cycling a try and say "On your bike" to your back pain!