What Are the Best Cardio Machines for Back Pain?

Whether you’re at home or at the gym, a cardio machine can be a great form of treatment for most sore backs.

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Perhaps you’ve done a loop at the gym, checking out all the cardio machines along the way and wondered which one will feel best for your aching back. Or maybe you’re in the market for purchasing a cardio machine to use in the comfort of your home instead of hitting the gym. Either way, if you deal with chronic back pain, you’re likely looking for a machine that won’t make your back pain worse.

Woman using cardio machine for back painWhat's the best cardio machine to use when you have back pain?

In fact, for many, cardio exercise can be greatly beneficial for a variety of back conditions.  For example, one study in the November 2020 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine says that while exercise is still being explored as a tried-and-true treatment option, the authors did determine that exercise training may be more effective than hands-on treatment from a therapist. A December 2020 study in Pain found that the endorphins brought on by aerobic exercise can actually lessen low back pain.

James D. Lin, MD, MS, is a spine surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital. He says that the North American Spine Society (NASS) recently released evidence-based recommendations for the treatment of back pain, and one of the few recommendations that received a “Grade A” recommendation, or the highest level, was aerobic exercise.

Although you can always take to the outdoors for a hike, run, or bike ride, you may prefer a cardio machine for many reasons: It’s pouring out, you have a treadmill or stationary bike in your basement, you prefer a pre-set workout program to reach a certain calorie or distance goal, etc.

No matter if you’re working out at home or hitting the gym, a cardio machine just might relieve that nagging back pain you’ve been struggling with.

Cardio: Grade A Back Pain Treatment

Cardio exercise is something that Dr. Lin recommends to his own patients.

“In most patients with back pain, my initial recommendations usually include conservative treatment including physical therapy as well as a self-directed aerobic exercise program,” he says.

Dr. Lin specifically recommends starting with moderate-intensity aerobic exercise.

“What is moderate intensity?” he says. “Something that will make you slightly short of breath and even sweat a little.”

Moderate-intensity exercise can include power walking, either outdoors or on a treadmill, and stationary biking. As long as these activities get your heart rate up, he says that they’ve been shown to decrease back pain, relieve stress, and elevate your mood.

“I will typically recommend 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise three to five times a week for six weeks,” Dr. Lin notes. “Not only can this make your back feel better, but it is also recommended by the American Heart Association.”

Generally, Dr. Lin says that regular exercise has the power to make people feel better, from your back to everything else.

Which Back Conditions Are Off-limits?

But, be forewarned that not all back conditions benefit from regular sweat sessions. Dr. Lin suggests that an evaluation from a doctor is necessary for severe or persistent pain before starting a cardio regimen, since, as he says, “some conditions that cause back pain won’t benefit from exercise.” 

For example, if you have a spinal fracture, something that requires bracing and physical therapy, you shouldn’t be hitting the cardio machines anytime soon.

In addition, if you do not exercise regularly or have any major medical or heart problems, it may be worth seeing your medical doctor prior to starting a workout regimen.

The Best Cardio Exercises for Your Back

If your doctor clears you for aerobic exercise, you’ll be pleased to know that no cardio machines are off-limits.

“In my experience, elliptical machines and stationary bikes are the most well-tolerated by my patients with back problems, as they are low impact,” Dr. Lin says. “However, if you can tolerate them, jogging treadmills are great as well.” He adds that during the pandemic, many of his patients have said that they enjoy working out on their Peloton bikes.

“However,” Dr. Lin says, “the bottom line is I recommend anything that gets your heart rate up, helps you break out a sweat, and leaves you slightly out of breath without aggravating your back.”

In other words? Listen to your body. If a long workout on a treadmill results in searing back pain, it’s definitely time to back off and try something more low impact.

Additionally, remember to not ignore back pain that doesn’t take place during a workout. If you’re in pain continuously and exercising isn’t helping, don’t overlook the warning signs.

Dr. Lin concludes by saying, “In general, most episodes of back pain get better on their own. However, if the pain is persistent for several weeks, or if there are concerning symptoms such as weakness, numbness, tingling, or bowel and bladder dysfunction, I would recommend seeing your physician for an evaluation.”

Updated on: 05/20/21
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Biking and Back Pain: What You Need to Know
James D. Lin, MD
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