Back pain and back problems are quite common and too little exercise is a risk factor. Sport and physical activity can help prevent them, or at least lessen their severity, but not all forms of exercise – or ways of doing them – are equally good for your back.
Your physical make-up plays a role, of course. Susceptibility to back problems depends “on your genetics and lifestyle,” says Dr. Munther Sabarini, a neurosurgeon at the Avicenna Clinic in Berlin, which specializes in spine surgery.
Orthopaedist and sports physician Axel Klein, vice president of the German Society for Sports Medicine and Prevention (DGSP), doesn’t advise against any particular form of exercise. What’s important, he says, is “how you do it, and how intensively.”
Here are how five physical activities measure up in terms of back health:
If you want to benefit your back, saddle up. Your upright posture while riding will strengthen your back muscles and reduce any strain on your back as a whole.
Constantly having to compensate for the horse’s movements exercises the small muscles along your spine, which standard strength training hardly reaches, notes Sabarini. What’s more, studies show that “horse-riding also stresses your spinal discs, thereby keeping them fit.” All in all, he says, it promotes mobility and is “a nearly ideal workout for back health.”
It, too, has the reputation of being good for your back – so long as you do it properly. When performing the breaststroke, for example, you shouldn’t hold your head rigidly above water, but rather drop it into the water, in line with your spine, during the gliding phase of the stroke. This will prevent neck pain, explains Klein.
The backstroke, which is often recommended for people with back pain, is only good for your back when your legs as well as your upper body are in a horizontal position, according to Klein. Many people’s legs hang down in the water during the backstroke, though, which is a sign of deficient core stability and can lead to discomfort.
There’s one benefit shared by all types of swimming, Sabarini points out: buoyancy. The upward force exerted by the water reduces strain on your spine and muscles, and swimming is gentle on your joints as well. This also makes it a suitable form of exercise for people who are overweight.
Klein rates tennis as not very back-friendly because of the sudden stops and starts, and hyperextension of your trunk (bending backwards), especially when you’re serving. This puts a heavy strain on the small vertebral joints, he says. Another drawback is the asymmetrical strain put on the serving-arm side of your body, creating a disbalance in your back.
Core stability – a strong trunk musculature – is therefore important for tennis players. These muscles can be strengthened with special training.
Of all the activities involving running, jogging puts the greatest strain on your spine and joints, remarks Sabarini. Depending on how fast you run, every foot strike exerts three to five times your body weight on them, he says. Joggers would therefore be wise to run on soft surfaces or, if they feel pain, to switch to Nordic walking, which is gentle on your feet and hips as well as your back.
According to Klein, joggers don’t experience greater degenerative changes in their back than non-joggers do. But if you have pre-existing damage to your back, he advises not to run downhill, to avoid hard surfaces such as asphalt, and to reduce your jogging intensity. He also says you should follow up three jogging sessions with a workout to strengthen your core and leg muscles.
As with horse riding, the experts say dancing is almost always recommendable. The upright posture, large amount of movement, high demands on coordination, and low impact stress from the feet up make dancing a healthy physical activity that also trains body awareness. If you’ve got back problems, says spine specialist Sabarini, “dancing is a good way to stay active despite them.”
To sum up, not all sports and physical activities are equal when it comes to keeping your back healthy and pain-free. Dancing is more back-friendly than tennis, for example. Sport-related back problems can be alleviated or prevented with training targeted at strengthening muscles, however.
But more important than special training is “the regularity of exercise,” says Klein – not just doing a sport, but being active during the normal course of the day. Particularly if you have back problems, he says, exercise is usually better than rest.