Learn the importance of NOT being idle: Why staying active is crucial to reduce and manage your chronic pain.
When you live with chronic pain, it can be hard to know what to do for the best.
And the thought of exercising when you are in pain may seem like a silly thing to do.
I mean why would you drag yourself off the couch to exercise when your back's already in pieces?
Surely that's not safe, right?
And won't exercising when you're already in pain only cause you more damage?
And more pain?
Well, for certain types of back pain, such as when you throw your back out or suffer a strain because of something you have done, you may well be right.
In these instances of temporary pain it may be a good idea to rest and allow your body to heal before attempting any exercise.
However this is NOT the case when your back pain is chronic and persistent.
So while resting up can be helpful intitally for people with acute back pain, for those of us with chronic pain staying active is vital to keep our backs strong and healthy.
And this is good news I think, because it means we can do something about our pain.
Now, being physical workers we already have an advantage over people that have to sit in an office all day, as we get to move around and stay active within our jobs.
However this activity alone isn't enough.
But what else should you be doing?
And which activities and sports are safe for you to do?
Which Types of Exercise Should You Be Doing For Chronic Lower Back Pain?
Don't worry, by saying you need to stay active I'm not saying you need to start running marathons here.
Especially after a hard days graft.
In fact, that's probably the worst thing you could try to do!
But just exercising to a moderate intensity, 3-4 times per week, has been shown to produce a wide range of health benefits for those of us with chronic lower back pain.
These include reduced pain levels, increased mobility and range of motion, plus improvements to your mood and overall well-being.
Which will help you to be more comfortable and productive during the working day, as well as improving your quality of life outside work.
And on the flip side, it has been shown that not only does being physically inactive make our back pain worse.
It can also lead to an increased risk of developing severe health problems, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers (2).
So you need to stay active.
And when it comes to exercises that will help your back pain, you need to focus on the following areas:
- Exercises that strengthen, stretch and lengthen the muscles that support your lower back, such as your hips, glutes, hamstrings, abs and deep-lying core muscles.
- Maintaining your aerobic fitness with activities such as walking, swimming and cycling.
- Avoiding jolting exercises that put too much stress on your lower back.
What You Will Gain By Staying Active
Our bodies are designed to move.
However, in todays world of technology, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of spending too much time on our backsides.
Whether that be in front of computers at work or at home, spending hours behind the wheel each day, or sitting in front of the TV having Netflix binges, this lack of movement is terrible for our backs.
Especially if we suffer from chronic pain.
On the other hand, getting into a routine of being active is great for us.
So much so that increasing your physical activity is actually a part of the current international guidelines for managing chronic lower back pain (79).
And here's why:
- Staying active will reduce the pain that you are in.
- It strengthens your muscles, which will bring more support for your lower back.
- Your joints will have a greater range of motion, lowering the strain on your back.
- You'll increase your overall flexibility, which will lower muscle pain and soreness.
- It'll help to keep your weight under control.
- It'll improve your circulation, which is vital for delivering oxygen and nutrients to all areas of the body to help them repair, recover and keep you healthy.
- It'll boost your immune system - the increase in circualtion and production of white blood cells that exercise brings helps to fight infections.
- It'll release endorphins which make you feel happier, and also block pain signals.
- It'll make you less prone to depression and anxiety.
- It'll increase your confidence in what your body is capable of doing.
- It'll improve your mood and give you a positive outlook, which is vital when dealing with chronic pain.
- It'll help you to sleep better, which can be a problem for people with chronic lower back pain.
- It has also been found that exercise can bring greater pain improvements than pain medication in certain studies (80), so it can lower your need and reliance on drugs.
Not a bad list!
And these benefits become even more obvious and important when you look at the horror stories that can emerge from doing nothing.
The Dangers of Physical Inactivity
It can be so tempting to take things easy when you are having a bad pain day.
However this is the worst thing you can do for chronic pain.
Let me explain.
I'm sure you're all familiar with the phrase "Use it or lose it".
And it is never more true than when you are speaking about your body.
The medical term for this is 'Disuse Syndrome', which basically covers the effects on the body and mind that physical inactivity causes.
And be warned, being lazy can be dangerous!
For instance, in 2009 The World Health Organisation (WHO) listed physical inactivity as the 4th leading risk factor for deaths globally (responsible for 6%), behind only high blood pressure, smoking and high blood glucose levels (1).
And it was also found to lower life expectancy, with WHO estimating it was responsible for 9% of all premature deaths (77).
Pretty serious stuff, right?
And on top of that, a lack of activity will also make your chronic pain a hell of a lot worse.
Here's the full list of problems that inactivity can bring (be warned, it's a long list!):
- It can cause your muscles to shrink and weaken, which will make you less mobile and physically able.
- This muscle weakness means your lower back has less support.
- Your bones will also lose density, making you more prone to injury..
- It leads to a loss of flexibility throughout your body, leading to muscle soreness, stiffness and a restricted range of motion.
- It leads to your body taking in less oxygen, which leaves you feeling lethargic.
- It also causes the body to produce fewer red blood cells, which reduces the amount of oxygen being delivered to the tissues, leading to more inflammation (and in turn more pain and stiffness).
- It alters the blood flow, meaning less nutrients and oxygen getting to your muscles, joints and tissues, leaving them unable to repair and heal.
- It slows down your nervous system.
- It can cause problems with the functioning of your internal organs.
- It can cause digestion problems.
- It can lead to obesity, which puts more strain on your back.
- It can cause problems in the mind too, leading to struggles with your memory and concentration.
- It can also negatively affect your mood, and make you more prone to depression and anxiety.
- It can make it difficult to get to sleep at night.
- It can cause high blood pressure.
- It can increase the risk of heart disease.
- It can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- It can increase the risk of developing colon and breast cancer.
- And it can increase the risk of dying prematurely.
Grim reading I'm sure you'll agree.
But these are all great reasons to get off our asses and stay active!
What Are The Best Exercises For Lower Back Pain?
Now you can see why it's so important to stay active, it's time to tell you which kinds of activities and exercises you should be doing to help your chronic lower back pain.
However before you begin, I just want to point out a couple of things.
Firstly, you need to keep in mind that the name of the game with chronic pain is to always exercise to a moderate intensity.
This has been shown time and again to be the best intensity for our pain.
For instance, in a 2011 study it was found that both lack of activity and intense activity increased the risk of lower back pain (81).
Moderate activity on the other hand was found to reduce the risk of lower back pain (81).
So it's all about finding that sweet spot and not overdoing things.
And secondly, remember that I'm not a doctor or a physiotherapist.
Much of the advice and information I give here and throughout the site has been tested and found in scientific studies, and as a consequence has been recommended as safe and appropriate for people with chronic lower back pain.
However, everyone's pain is going to be different, and what works for one person may not work for another.
Therefore you should always consult your doctor before starting any new form of exercise, and stop if it causes you any pain or discomfort.
So now that's out of the way, I'll list the following activities that have been found to be safe and beneficial for people with chronic lower back pain.
You can click on any of the links to go to the full article I've written on that particular activity, which will explain it in great detail and also tell you how you can get started, with links to resources and videos to help you.
There is a mixture there of stretching, strengthening, core and aerobic exercises.
And these vary in intensity and difficulty, so you should be able to find a few that are right for you no matter what your level of fitness and pain is.
So have a read, pick a few that are right for you, and get active!
Hopefully reading through this article will have encouraged you to become more active, as it really is a crucial part of managing chronic lower back pain.
Not only does it reduce pain, it also helps to keep us strong, supple and physically able.
And it can also make us far happier within ourselves, by improving our mood and increasing our confidence in our own bodies.
The combination of these things means we can deal with chronic pain with a far more positive outlook, and enjoy a much better quality of life.
I've included a wide range of activities that you can try here, so I hope that you found some that you could enjoy and incorporate into your weekly routine.
The best idea is to use a mixture of the aerobic and strengthening activities.
To give you an idea, here is what I typically do in a week.
I take daily walks and also stretch out my body a few times during the day.
I also do 30 minutes of core-exercises, 5-6 days per week, to keep my core strong.
On top of that I swim 3-4 times per week, and take either a yoga class or a pilates class.
I find this combination works to keep me out of pain and on top of my problem, and I include that here to give you an idea of how you can get a good mix of exercises.
Now you may not need to do as much as this (or have the time to).
But add a few activities to begin with and see how that works for you.
Through trial and error you will find a routine that works perfectly for you, and once you do you'll never look back.
So good luck, and let me know how you get on in the comments below.