Soothe your aching back with Pilates, not pills

Marissa Lins

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, back pain is the most common cause of job-related disabilities, and to add insult to injury, 80 percent of people suffer from some form of back pain over the course of their lifetimes. The cause can be sudden, anything from a pulled muscle playing tennis to the trauma of a car accident, or gradual as happens with age and sedentary lifestyles. Right now, as you’re reading this, one in four people has experienced some form of back pain in just the last three months. Ouch!

So how do we ease the pain? For most us, our knee-jerk reaction is to reach for a handful of pills. It might be over-the-counter ibuprofen or prescription strength analgesics. Sure, they take the edge off and certainly have their place in the cornucopia of back pain remedies, but a new study has found that exercise and specifically Pilates and yoga can put back pain to bed for good.

A recent study by Associate Professor Dr. Manuela Ferreira of the George Institute for Global Wellness in Sydney, Australia, found that anti-inflammatory medications at best offer only short-term pain relief, often with side effects like severe bleeding, constipation and stomach ulcers, to name just a few. Instead of popping pills, the study’s co-author, Research Fellow Dr. Gustavo Machado recommends patients with back issues try exercise to help manage their pain. Specifically, he advocates aerobic exercise, strengthening and stretching, Pilates, yoga and core-stability exercises.

As a Pilates reformer instructor at the Glenwood Hot Springs Athletic Club, I see a lot of clients; many are striving to live a healthy, fit lifestyle, but a significant number struggle with some form of back pain — due to pregnancy, sciatica, disc degeneration, fibromyalgia and from countless other causes. The main goal of Pilates is to teach proper alignment through a series of movements that improve strength, flexibility and range of motion in the hips and shoulders.

Pilates also focuses on the “powerhouse” or core, a group of six main muscle groups that include the transverse abdominus, diaphragm, rotators, multifidus, quadrates lumborum and the pelvic floor. The goal is to achieve neutral spine alignment, first in the Pilates studio, and eventually through practice and awareness outside the gym in everyday life. When the spine is properly aligned and supported by the surrounding muscles and joints, back pain is alleviated naturally, often permanently.

To make easing, or better yet, preventing back pain a priority, consider taking a Pilates class. Most studios offer either mat Pilates which requires nothing more than a soft mat or reformer Pilates, which uses specialized equipment fitted with a sliding platform and a system of pullies.

If your back is killing you, like it is for 25 percent of the population right this minute, these simple Pilates exercises could be your first move in taking care of your aching back once and for all. You can easily Google all of the exercises below for instructive visuals and videos.

• Cat Stretch. This soothing exercise stretches the entire spine from your atlas (the first cervical vertebrae) to your coccyx or tailbone.

• Opposite Arm & Leg Reaches. Engage the muscles of the back, buttocks, hips and shoulders.

• Upper Back Extension. A powerful strengthening exercise that improves posture and helps prevent back injuries.

• Forward Spine Stretch. Helps keep your spine strong and supple while stretching your hips, hamstrings and calves.

When it comes to pain, the single most important thing you can do to rehab a bad back is to be gentle yet consistent in your practice. Ditch the drugs and try picking up Pilates instead.


Marissa Lins is fitness coordinator at the Glenwood Hot Springs Athletic Club.

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