The Southeastern Spine Institute

When you go to the gym, you have exercise choices, based in part on your workout goals. But if your goal is to protect your spine, you should talk to your doctor or physical therapist at the Southeastern Spine Institute (SSI) before you begin an exercise regimen. You’ll find that the best exercise for your back isn’t always the most obvious.

The treadmill and the elliptical are popular cardio machines, and aerobic exercise has proven health benefits. Aerobic exercise:

  • Strengthens your cardiovascular system, including your heart
  • Increases your endurance
  • Improves your balance
  • Uses up calories
  • Reduces your risk of arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes
  • Provides a surge of endorphins that make you feel good

Treadmills and ellipticals are both excellent choices for cardiovascular exercise. Both are better for your back than jogging on cement or asphalt. But which is the best exercise for your back?

The High Impact of Treadmills

Treadmills offer changing speeds and changing inclines. The machines allow you to walk and run indoors, in a controlled environment. Exercise on a treadmill causes high or low impact on your joints and lower back, depending on the speed and intensity of your workout. Treadmills can help you burn calories, but they primarily only exercise your lower body.

Treadmills provide specific training for runners, but running or jogging on a treadmill is a high-impact workout. High-impact exercises may not be suitable if you have joint pain, a previous back injury, or are recovering from a back procedure. As you tire, your posture usually suffers on a treadmill as well, which in turn may cause you to re-injure yourself. That makes running on a treadmill not the best exercise for your back.

The Low-Impact Posture Saver

In comparison, the movement of an elliptical trainer may feel foreign at first; it’s a little like riding a bike while standing up. But it produces little to no impact on your knees, hips and back. And that makes it ideal if you’re recovering from back pain.

Low-impact exercise provides protection for your back, promoting good posture. It can even strengthen your back over time. Elliptical machines usually have upper-body handles that that work your arms, chest and upper back as well as your knees, providing a total body workout. Ellipticals are generally considered low-impact cardio equipment because, like riding a bicycle, your feet don’t leave the pedals during the workout.

With an elliptical machine, your bones and joints don’t endure the pounding that occurs with running outdoors or on a treadmill. Ellipticals can also be pedaled backward, allowing you to isolate calf and hamstring muscle groups. And as you tire, your posture is maintained by the arm handles and foot pedals, decreasing the risk of injury to your back.

The Best Exercise for Your Back

Cardio exercise alleviates back pain and prevents future injury when you use the equipment correctly. Aerobic activity — either on a treadmill or elliptical — improves your overall health. You may feel that an elliptical workout feels easier than a treadmill workout, but in fact, they burn almost the same number of calories.

Elliptical machines are an ideal alternative to running or jogging, making it the best exercise for your back. However, since walking is a lower-impact exercise than running, walking on a treadmill comes in a close second. Everybody is different, so ask your spine specialist at SSI for a recommendation for your particular case.