Your Cardio May Be Hurting Your Back

There are plenty of reasons your back could hurt. It could be the endless sitting at your job.

It could be that fall off the ladder three years ago while trying to out-do the neighbors’ Christmas lights. It could be your scoliosis. OR it could be your cardio at the gym!
Let me explain.
As humans, we walk with what is known as a reciprocal gait pattern. This is seen when your left foot steps forwards and your right arm swings forward with it. There are many reasons for this: balance, efficiency, and weight transfer to name a few. You’ve probably seen people (or are someone) walking with what is known as an antalgic (not normal) gait pattern. This could be shuffling feet, a wide base of support, or a non-reciprocal pattern when the right leg steps forwards and the right arm goes forwards, or your arms don’t swing at all. There are many reasons these patterns occur; neurological disease, aging, loss of balance, and the list goes on. The problem here is that people who walk with antalgic gait patterns are at a greater risk of musculoskeletal injuries and falls.
So why is my cardio exercise possibly hurting my back? After all, we have been told about cardio to combat heart disease, and movement in general to fight back pain? One word; handles. Not love handles.
Handles on treadmills, and handles on ellipticals. Next time you are at the gym do me a favor. Look at the cardio floor, or room, or wing or whatever gyms have in them now, and look at those people who are simply half-assing it. Most likely they are holding on to the handles of either the treadmill or elliptical reading this weeks edition of US Weekly. The problem with this is that it does not allow for a reciprocal gait pattern. There is no arm swing, minimal thoracic rotation, and repetitive rotation of the lumbar spine.
The thoracic spine is one of the rotation centers of the body along with the hips and upper cervical spine, but instead of being able to do its job, it is on lockdown because of people holding on for dear life on cardio equipment. This force that the body is accustomed to creating thousands of times a day is then transferred from the thoracic spine and shoulders down to the poor lumbar spine, which is not designed to rotate more than 12-18 degrees. So once all the rotation in your lumbar spine is maxed out and your facet joints have been overworked, an inflammatory response will start to occur, likely resulting in pain.
What about people who walk with walkers?
If someone is walking with a walker, chances are the benefits of walking with it outweigh the significant risks of walking without it. These are not the people I am worried about. It is those otherwise “healthy” people possibly hurting their backs without even knowing it while on the treadmill or the elliptical who are at highest risk. Here is a video of me walking at a “comfortable pace” without holding on, and then holding on (look at the left hip excursion when I start to hold on) . And it only gets worse with more speed.
I know I need cardiovascular exercise, but I don’t feel comfortable on the treadmill or elliptical without holding on. What do you recommend?
  1. Walk outside or on a track.  Unless you are using a walker, the chances that you can use a reciprocal gait pattern outside or on a track are significantly higher than if you are holding onto a piece of cardio equipment.
  2. If you truly do not feel comfortable performing cardiovascular exercise without holding on, you probably should not be on the equipment. Chances are you need to spend some time working on your balance and on your trunk and leg strength to improve your stability while on these pieces of equipment. Get in to your physical therapist or well qualified trainer if this is the case.
  3. Also, if you do not feel comfortable without holding on, just one one hand and every once in a while switch support hands. This will allow for natural mid back rotation.
Cardiovascular exercise is important. However, it is crucial just like doing resistance exercises we do it with as good of form as we can to prevent injuries.
Contributed by Dr. Mike Scott, DPT


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