Your Health

Secrets to keeping fit with a bad back

Courtesy of Physiofit
Kim Gladfelter, right, instructs clients as they perform back-strengthening exercises in her Fremont Avenue studio. Pilates can help people with back pain function better in their daily lives.

This question came to me at the clinic, and I wanted to share it with you:

“Kim, I’m desperate to get back into shape after suffering with a bad back for a long time. Can you continue to stay fit and active when long-standing back pain still gets in the way? Physical therapy is a great help, but I want to do more by myself while I’m receiving treatment. I’m just scared, a bit nervous and don’t know what type of exercise is safe.” – Melissa, 49

Back pain is a popular topic because it affects approximately 31 million people in the U.S. If you are in pain, you should schedule a doctor’s visit to determine why.

Understandably, the thought of doing any kind of exercise when you are in pain is scary. You don’t want to make that pain worse in case there is an injury – one that could keep you out of work longer, or permanently.

The good news is that back pain doesn’t mean you should become a couch potato, afraid to be active. It’s good that physical therapy is working for you, but it’s not a cure by itself. Overcoming back pain requires you to do your part outside physical therapy.

The majority of people who suffer from chronic pain have weak backs to begin with because they are not active. For example, Melissa has a desk job and her back pain is the direct result of sitting for long periods without a break. At night, she sits some more.

The human back isn’t designed for sitting. Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. In other words, their lives were built around physical activity – not desk chairs. All of that sitting puts pressure on the spine and leads to back pain.

The long-term solution is to increase the strength of the muscles surrounding your spine to support your back and regain control. Pilates is a good choice for people like Melissa who need a way to ease back into a regular exercise routine. It involves movement designed to strengthen, while making you more flexible and toned at the same time.

Once your back is stronger, you’ll be up for trying other forms of exercise such as running, swimming or biking to improve your cardiac health and stamina. It is important to start with Pilates to build up your core muscles and reduce risk of injury.

To get back to Melissa’s question, the answer is “yes.” You can get fit and stay that way even if you suffer from back pain. You have to be ready to make a long-term commitment that goes beyond just physical therapy. If you consistently do Pilates exercises for three months, you should notice a big difference in how you feel. Starting slowly and building up is the key to keeping your back healthy and feeling good.

Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy and Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave., Los Altos. For more information, call 887-6046 or visit

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