Exercise is the last thing we want to do when we feel the dreaded twinge of back pain. But new research from the University of Colorado School of Medicine says it's the first thing to try. To stay healthy, your spinal discs—the pads between the vertebrae—need to be in motion, says Venu Akuthota, director of the Spine Center at the University of Colorado. "This helps circulate nutrients in and waste out," he says. Physical activity can also keep you limber and less injury prone. "Muscles like the hamstrings and calves are engaged when we walk or climb stairs, but the deep back and abdominal muscles aren't used as much," says Akuthota. "Unless they're targeted, they weaken and cause backaches."
HEAL YOURSELF. Exercise can also be emotionally liberating: As you start to move, you realize your pain isn't as limiting as you thought. Tracy Meneses, 39, from Orange, Calif., suffered for almost two years from a herniated disk that eventually required surgery. "I would move gingerly to avoid discomfort," she says. When her surgeon recommended exercise, she hired a personal trainer who focused on her core. About six months later, she was pain free and more confident. "Working out showed me that my body was capable of more than I expected," she says.
TRY PILATES. To get you started on a painprevention routine, we spoke to Michele S. Olson, Ph.D., a professor of physical education and exercise science at the University of Alabama in Montgomery, who recommends pilates exercises. "They strengthen the core without straining the spine," she says. Try the following classic pilates move:
Leg Pull-Down works the deep abdominal muscles:
A. Come on to your hands and knees and get into a push-up position: Align your hands under your shoulders, spread your fingers for stability, and straighten your arms. Then, come on to your toes, keeping your legs straight and your abdominals contracted. Keep your head, neck, and spine aligned and gaze toward the mat. Keep your body on the same plane so there's a straight line from your head to your toes.
B. Inhale as you lift your left leg as high as is comfortable, raising your heel toward the ceiling. Exhale and lower the leg. Repeat with the right leg. Keep your hips squared and pointed toward the mat at all times. Alternate lifting and lowering 8 to 12 times on each side to complete one set.
Do a total of three sets several times a week.