Back pain and problems are common, and too little exercise is a risk factor.
Exercise and physical activity can help prevent or at least mitigate them, but not all forms of exercise – or forms of exercise – are equally good for your back.
Your physical condition naturally plays a role. The susceptibility to back problems depends “on your genetics and your lifestyle,” says Dr. Munther Sabarini, neurosurgeon at the Avicenna Clinic in Berlin, which specializes in spinal surgery.
Orthopedist and sports medicine specialist Axel Klein, Vice President of the German Society for Sports Medicine and Prevention, does not advise against any particular type of sport.
The important thing is “how to do it and how intensively”.
Here are how five physical activities measure up for back health:
If you want to do something good for your back, saddle up. Your upright posture while riding strengthens your back muscles and relieves the entire back.
Constantly compensating for the horse’s movements trains the small muscles along the spine that normal strength training can hardly achieve, notes Dr. Sabarini.
Studies also show that “riding also puts strain on the intervertebral discs and thus keeps them fit”.
All in all, it promotes mobility and is “an almost ideal training for back health”.
That too has the reputation of being good for your back – as long as you do it right. When breaststroke swimming, for example, you shouldn’t keep your head rigid above the water, but rather let it fall into the water in line with your spine while the stroke is sliding. This prevents neck pain, explains Klein.
The backstroke, which is often recommended for people with back pain, is only good for the back when both legs and upper body are horizontal, says Klein.
However, many people’s legs droop when swimming back in the water, which is a sign of a lack of core stability and can lead to discomfort.
All types of swimming have an advantage, emphasizes Dr. Sabarini: the lift.
The buoyancy of the water relieves the load on the spine and muscles, and swimming is gentle on the joints. This also makes it a suitable form of exercise for people who are overweight.
Klein estimates that tennis is not very back-friendly due to the sudden stops and starts and the overstretching of the trunk (backward bending), especially when serving.
That puts a lot of strain on the small vertebral joints, he says.
Another disadvantage is the asymmetrical loading of the serving side of your body, which creates an imbalance in your back.
Core stability – strong core muscles – is therefore important for tennis players.
Of all the activities related to running, jogging puts the greatest strain on the spine and joints, says Dr. Sabarini.
Depending on how fast you run, every step you kick takes three to five times your body weight, he says.
Joggers should therefore rather walk on soft ground or switch to Nordic walking if they are in pain, which is gentle on feet and hips as well as the back.
According to Klein, joggers do not experience any greater degenerative changes in the back than non-joggers. If you already have back damage, however, he advises not to run downhill, to avoid hard surfaces such as asphalt and to reduce jogging intensity.
He also says that after three sessions of jogging, you should do a workout to strengthen your core and leg muscles.
As with horse riding, experts say that dancing is almost always recommended. The upright posture, lots of movement, high demands on coordination and low impact loads from the feet make dancing a healthy physical activity that also trains body awareness. If you have back problems, says Dr. Sabarini, “dancing is a great way to stay active anyway.”
In conclusion, not all sports and physical activities are created equal when it comes to keeping your back healthy and pain-free.
Dancing is easier on the back than tennis, for example.
Sports-related back problems can, however, be alleviated or prevented through targeted training to strengthen the muscles.
More important is “the regularity of exercise,” says Klein – not just sport, but exercise in everyday life.
Movement is usually better than rest, especially with back problems. – dpa