There is a popular misconception among many people, that athletes have the highest incidence of back and joint pain. However, aside from extreme contact sports and the minority affected by overtraining or poor coaching, it’s more often sedentary people – those carrying excess weight and/or sitting at desk jobs most or all of the day, who tend to suffer more chronically. This is not only backed up by extensive research, but I can personally attest to the fact that, of the clients I treat, those that are physically active definitely have a much lower incidence of chronic joint pain, and always experience more rapid recovery from any type of injury. The truth is, whether light or heavy, regular exercise absolutely helps with back, joint, and other pain, particularly when partnered with healthy stretching and therapeutic massage.
Many sedentary people resist physical activity – either feeling that they will not enjoy exercise or flat out fearing that it will do them harm. Many assume that lying in bed or “resting” more will help with back and joint pain, when in reality, movement is most likely exactly what they need to help lubricate joints, and to stretch and build healthy musculature around those very unstable joints!
Sadly, doctors used to prescribe “bed rest” for back pain and other chronic pain conditions, but studies have proven that people who exercise and stay flexible manage and eliminate pain much better than those who don’t. Our bodies were designed to MOVE! In many ways, 21st-century life has done us a disservice, when it comes to the lack of exercise. More folks are sitting and spending time with heads down looking at screens or surfing through 500+ cable TV channels rather than getting outside for fresh air and engaging in physical activity.
“Exercise improves your pain threshold,” says Trent Nessler, PT, DPT, MPT, a vice president with Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham, Ala. “With chronic pain, your pain threshold drops — in other words, it takes less pain to make you feel more uncomfortable. With cardiovascular, strengthening, and flexibility exercise, you can improve that pain threshold.”
Much like those who learn to relax and enjoy deep tissue massage, there is often an evolution as we increase our threshold for discomfort, particularly when we learn how great we feel after deep tissue massage or post-exercise. The results are so worth the slight discomfort, whether on the table or in the gym. Most of my clients have learned to literally sleep through even the deepest tissue massage as I work extremely slowly and stealthily, only sinking into where the body allows me.
Not so obvious benefits of exercise
Aside from the reduction of body fat and overall weight loss, and creating a leaner, attractive body, there are SOOOO many other benefits that go far beyond outward appearance. In addition to being physically helpful, cardio and strength-building exercises are extremely beneficial to mental health by reducing stress and improving energy and perspective, (including boosts in serotonin and dopamine, the “happy chemicals” in the brain). Studies have proven the positive effects with regard to depression, anxiety, and a host of other emotional issues. (Of course healthy nutrition plays a critical role as well, but that’s a subject for another article.)
Back to the physical benefits, it should be obvious that any reduction of (excess) weight on the body’s frame will result in improved overall health by benefiting the heart, the joints, and the skeletal system. People with lean bodies generally have more stamina, increased energy, and more flexibility. Besides feeling better and improving overall health, people with lean bodies greatly decrease their risk of developing certain diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Many forms of toning exercises, especially those that target the core, also improve posture. Low-impact, weight-bearing movements serve to strengthen bones, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, and relieving stress to the spinal cord.
Achieving a leaner, healthier body increases self-esteem and affords the ability to enjoy so many more activities and experiences that require stamina, strength, aerobic capacity, and general motivation.
How to get started
It is critical to learn and use proper form, which can be difficult for beginners, so having a professional, experienced trainer or coach is extremely helpful and wise.
If you have been sedentary for a significant part of your life without much exercise, or have heart problems or other health conditions or concerns, consult with your doctor, and start slowly to build your stamina and to enjoy the process and many benefits that regular exercise will offer. A good program will challenge you according to your current level of fitness and will increase accordingly as your capabilities improve.
If you do have a chronic pain condition like back pain or hip, knee, or shoulder problems, you should begin an exercise program with guidance. Check with your doctor first, and then seek expert help to develop an individualized exercise program. “Have a professional — a massage or physical therapist or athletic trainer — show you what is appropriate to do given your condition,” says Nessler. A particular exercise that’s great for most people may need to be modified for those with injuries or weaknesses, but there is always a way to achieve the desired result.
A good therapist/trainer will naturally be aware, scanning for postural assessment. A trained eye will note how you sit, stand, bend, walk, run and move through various exercises and movements. As we move through life, many of us develop postural imbalances, whether from our work, carrying a child on one hip or bags over a shoulder. When imbalances arise, pain can result in the back, hips, knees, and shoulders – anyplace there is excessive stress on a joint or soft tissue.
Following a legitimate warm-up such as walking/biking or most anything that raises the heart rate and warms the muscles, consider some simple and safe stretches that can help alleviate pain in the back and other joints. A good trainer/coach, chiropractor or physical therapist (myself included) can lead you through an array of options, designed specifically for your body and accounting for any special issues or injuries you may be dealing with.
The squat, for example, is an extremely simple, yet excellent exercise that can build core and lower body strength and reduce lower back pain. The better your ability to squat, the greater the reduction of pain, while improving your ability to perform daily activities, like going up and downstairs.
Beyond simple stretches, and core work, one of the most important types of exercise to improve chronic back and joint pain is cardiovascular exercise.
The key is finding a workout that doesn’t aggravate your pain during the exercise. If walking or running is initially too hard on the joints, one can begin with swimming or biking, as this gives you a cardio workout and resistance, without putting any weight on already taxed joints. Another beginner option would be a Pilates class, as all the exercises only use body weight and do not involve impact.
Beyond the basics
Strength training, when done correctly, and at the proper pace, can be a huge help in alleviating joint and back pain.
People with joint problems that cause significant pain should usually avoid high-impact exercise until they have mastered the basics and have strengthened the muscles and connective tissues around the joints, particularly if excessive weight is a contributing factor. It’s safer to start with a bike, rowing machine, or ski erg, found in most Crossfit facilities, such as Crossfit Magnify, the gym that I personally attend in Redmond, OR. The Crossfit regimen, in general, is designed to meet everyone at their own fitness level. Crossfit coaches are certified and trained to scale and modify movements to meet individual needs. The camaraderie and support within the classes make getting fit more enjoyable as well.
But I’m too old….
Untrue! Whether you are 30 or 70, it’s never too late to get started; there is an endless array of modifications for everyone, regardless of age, ability or current level of fitness.
Truly it comes down to simply making a CHOICE to invest in your health, to make your body a priority and to set aside some time. Once you’ve found a facility or person that can help you learn to exercise in a safe and controlled manner, it’s a matter of continuing to “show up” and not giving in to unfounded excuses. Over time, it’s amazing how well and how quickly the body can improve overall health, bounce back from injuries and even become stronger than it has ever been, even if it’s been neglected for decades!
“The benefits of exercise quickly become obvious for those who make the choice to stick with it,” says Cody Anderson, L2 Crossfit Trainer and co-owner of Crossfit Magnify in Redmond, Oregon. “Our goal as strength and conditioning coaches is to improve a client’s overall quality of life, not just to get them to have 6-pack abs and lift heavyweights. It is possible, achievable, and should be normal for a grandparent to be able to run and play with his/her grandchildren, to tie your own shoes without back pain, or to be able to pick yourself up off the floor with your own strength. When I see somebody in their 50’s or 60’s beaming after accomplishing something they haven’t been able to do since they were in their 20’s, it fills my heart in a way that doesn’t compare to anything else.”
Exercise will dramatically improve your quality of life. There’s really no reason to be sitting around the house in pain and watching life and all the fun that is to be had “out there” pass you by!
For more information, give me a call and I will be happy to answer your questions. I have literally decades of education, a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology, certification as a personal trainer from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and many years of experience leading others through exercise, stretching, and various other avenues toward better health. If I don’t have the answers to your particular needs, I can definitely lead you to someone else who can help.
Massage and exercise can completely shift the quality of life – from surviving to THRIVING!
Why acquiesce to chronic pain? When we “give in” to an unhealthy body, we are only saying yes to a reduced quality of life. Book your massage today as well as a trial class at Crossfit Magnify (Redmond, OR).