Start slow when exercising with back pain

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March 03, 2006|By MARY BETH REGAN | MARY BETH REGAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I need a good machine for someone with lower back problems. I want to keep a good cardio workout. Would a NordicTrack walk-fit be any good?

Ouch! I'm recovering from a lower lumbar sprain, myself, so I feel your pain. Still, your phrase "lower back problems" is raising red flags.

To answer your question, I turned to one area expert, Chris Wood, a physical therapist and leader of the Good Samaritan Hospital Back School. We both had the same thought: Is your back pain chronic or acute?

Consider that about 80 percent of Americans older than 20 will have at least one episode of debilitating back pain in their lifetimes. This is considered acute back pain and is treated by an orthopedic doctor. Most likely you will have to go to physical therapy, where you will be given a program to help you return to your regular level of exercise.

Chronic back pain is tougher to treat but should not be ignored. If you are suffering from lower back pain, make sure you consult a doctor before trying more exercises. You could have a slipped disk or a pinched nerve.

That said, Woods recommends starting slowly on a piece of equipment that doesn't stress your lower back. He recommends a stationary recumbent bike, which is lower to the ground than a regular workout bike. The advantage: The seat is designed like an office chair, rather than a bicycle seat, and takes pressure off your lower back. Most gyms have recumbent bikes.

While Wood does not endorse particular products, he says your next step is a low-impact elliptical trainer. This will let you get some cardio benefits without the impact of running on a treadmill or the hard ground. Still, he warns, when it comes to back trouble, don't push through pain. It could be a sign of more serious injury.

Good luck.

You said exercisers 60 or older must hold a stretch for 60 seconds to increase flexibility, and that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds would be useless. When you say "useless," I assume you mean useless as far as increasing flexibility.

I am 59 years old. I work out six or seven days a week. I stretch my neck, shoulders, arms, legs and back. I hold my stretches for 20 to 25 seconds. Even though I have not increased flexibility, I maintain my current level of flexibility and my muscles feel more relaxed and less tight.

If your stretching routine helps you feel relaxed, stick with it. But if you are looking to improve flexibility, hold those stretches for a few more seconds.

I checked with Bill Bandy, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas who has done research on stretching. He reiterates that the optimal time to hold a stretch after age 60 is 60 seconds.

If you hold a stretch for 30 seconds, you will likely maintain - and could increase - your flexibility. But if the hold time drops to 15 seconds, scientific studies show that the impact is the same as not stretching at all.

You are on the bubble with holds of 20 seconds to 25 seconds. If you add a few more seconds, you may see the impact shoot way up.

Send queries via e-mail to fitness@baltsun.com or via regular mail to Fitness Q&A, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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