A bad back doesn't mean you're banished from the gym. On the contrary, an exercise program is one of the most important things you can do to keep chronic back pain at bay, explains "The New York Times." Cardio exercise that involves a lot of impact, such as treadmill running, puts undue pressure on the spine, however. If you have acute back pain, go straight to see your doctor before hitting the cardio floor, but if you've been cleared for exercise, the elliptical may be an alternative. The elliptical trainer offers a substitute for running while also providing benefits garnered from using a stair climber and cross-country ski machine.
Low-impact exercise, which includes swimming and walking, contributes to stronger abdominal and back muscles without creating excessive strain. Because your feet stay fixed in the pedals that move along gliding rails, training on an elliptical machine is also considered low impact. This means the elliptical puts less stress on your joints and back, making it an option for those who suffer from back pain.
Whether the elliptical is appropriate for your back depends on the nature of your pain. A study published in "Clinical Biomechanics" in August 2012 found that the elliptical trainer puts the lower portion of the spine, known as the lumbar region, in a greater position of flexion and rotation when compared to walking. This means you bend forward more and rotate to a greater degree when using the elliptical, which may be contraindicated for certain conditions, including kyphosis, scoliosis and sway back. Your health care provider is the best person to ask as to whether the elliptical will aggravate your condition.
Arm Poles, Resistance and Incline
Many models of elliptical trainers feature arm poles that you pump back and forth during your workout to increase the intensity, promote greater calorie burn and provide mild strengthening for the upper body. If pumping these poles hurts your back, you can always opt not to use them and rest your hands lightly on the console or pump your arms freely alongside your body. Increasing the resistance of the elliptical machine does make the workout harder, but too much resistance may distort your stride and do a disservice to your back. Compromise by using a resistance that feels challenging, but still allows you to pedal smoothly and pain free. You can also adjust the incline, or ramp, of the elliptical to change the muscles you emphasize during the workout. Extremely high inclines may put your back at an uncomfortable angle in relation to your legs and hips, which could also be detrimental to a bad back. Use common sense: if it hurts, stop immediately.
Dr. Edward R. Laskowski of MayoClinic.com notes that using an elliptical provides about the same stress as walking on a treadmill. If you cannot walk without pain, the elliptical may not be a viable option. Even if you can incorporate the elliptical safely and pain free, you'll need to do other exercises to strengthen the muscles along the spine, of the hips and of the abdomen. Spine stabilization exercises, flexibility exercises and yoga can be helpful in mitigating and preventing back pain.
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.