Exercises to Ease Arthritic Backs

exerciseMost people over 60 experience some back pain – usually as the result of developing osteoarthritis. I found out I had it in my spine when I had my first bone density scan (a scan to see if I had osteoporosis – which I did). At the time, I was not having any back pain. Now, years later, I do.

Contrary to what you might like to do when you are in pain (stay still so it doesn’t hurt) , it helps me to move and exercise to ease my back pain.

You might have osteoarthritis if you wake up stiff and in pain in the morning – or if you have trouble getting up after you’ve been sitting for awhile.

What is osteoarthritis?

WebMd  defines it as follows:

“Osteoarthritis, commonly known as wear and tear arthritis, is the most common type of arthritis. It is associated with a breakdown of cartilage in joints and can occur in almost any joint in the body. It commonly occurs in the weight-bearing joints of the hips, knees, and spine. It also affects the fingers, thumb, neck, and large toe. “

The cartilage gets hard and eventually wears down, letting bone grind on bone. Ouch!

Most people over 60 have some degree of this disease. There is no cure, only pain management. One of the most effective way to manage osteoarthritis pain is with exercise – another case of ‘use it or lose it’!

Some folks have genetics that predispose them to get it; others have injuries or specific stresses that cause it to start and being overweight exasperates it.

Exercise keeps your muscles strong taking some of the pressure off your joints. Stretching exercises increase range of motion, fight stiffness and protect the cartilage from wear and tear by lubricating them with joint fluid.

Start with your doctor.

These are the exercises I do and the ones I have seen most often recommended. I have been a consistent exerciser for more than 30 years and my doctor knows it. If you think you have osteoarthritis in your back, first consult your doctor to see what he or she recommends you do. Don’t just start doing what I do, it may not work for you.

Warm Up

In the morning, I am always stiff and sore. Before getting out of bed I gently stretch my back by lying on my left side, putting my right leg at an angle in front of me and reaching back with my right arm. Next I switch sides. I also stretch out my hamstrings a bit by extending my leg straight (or as straight as it will go) up to the ceiling and flexing my foot back and forth.

Before doing any strenuous stretching, though I always move around. These should feel good. If they start hurting, modify them so they don’t or stop.

Move your feet. Move your arms.

I just start by stepping sideways – back and forth – just to get moving. Then I add my arms, extending them in front at waist level and pulling them back in time to my feet.

Once I have done that for a minute or so, I add more arm movement. One arm at a time I lift my elbow up and around almost brushing my hand against my cheek – and then down again. I alternate arms. As I do this, I am still stepping back and forth sideways to gently warm my whole body and get circulation going. After a few elbow circles, I start with full arm swings back – like I am swimming using the back stroke – alternating arms.

Some days I do these steps and reach across my body diagonally at shoulder height. This gently stretches my back while I am warming.

Generally I warm up before any routine for at least 10 minutes.

Core strengthening

At least three days a week, my routine includes tummy exercises. These are the standard crunches, bicycles, leg lifts and etc. Although I truly hate pushups, I also do these three times a week as part of my routines. Plank position poses also strengthen the back.

Back strengthening

I do reverse flys (with and without dumbells), one arm dumbell raises, bird dogs (opposite arm and leg raises when kneeling on hands and knees) as well as traditional yoga exercises such as Cobra.


Only do these passive stretches after you have warmed up.

Laying on my back with legs stretch out, I bring my right ankle to my left knee and the right knee to the floor on my left side. My right arm is stretched straight on the floor on my right side with my head turned towards my arm. Only go as far as you can. I’ve been doing it for awhile and can drop my knees to the floor. Then, of course, I change legs after holding the stretch for awhile.

The down dog yoga position also stretches out my back and feels great. You can also go from a regular down dog into a wide legged down dog, then put one hand on the floor directly under your face and reach to the ceiling with the other, looking up at the hand. Then switch and do it on the other side.

To stretch the hips and back I lie on my back, with my legs bent to a 90-degree angle over my hips, putting my right ankle on my left thigh just below the knee. Then I reach my right arm through the space between my legs and my left arm around the outside wrapping my hands around the back of my left thigh, pulling my left leg toward my chest.

After doing some back strengthening work, I stretch out the back muscles by alternating the yoga ‘cat’ and ‘cow’ positions. On my hands and knees on the floor, first I push down into my hands and knees rounding my back up and holding the position for a few seconds. Then I sink my back down into a semi arch and raise up my head.

Avoid exercises that pound your bones.

I used to jog, started at age 50 but soon stopped as my knee started bothering me. Jogging is jarring on your knee joints and can hasten the decline of your cartilage.

Since I have osteoporosis in addition to osteoarthritis, I do have to do some high impact aerobic type activity so that my bones continue to build, but I have to be careful not to do so much that it impacts my joint health and hastens the osteoarthritis symptoms.

Go figure!

What do you do for back pain?

Disclaimer:  I am not a doctor or a physical therapist.  Consult your own prior to starting an exercise routine.


Exercises to Ease Arthritic Backs — 8 Comments

  1. Wow! You do a lot! I used to do a lot of floor exercises, but now I mostly walk and use housework for exercise. I admire your commitment to your exercise routine! 🙂

  2. I also have back pain and I absolutely love yoga as my primary form of exercise. It feels good on the body, it’s very challenging, and it works as strength training, aerobic, and meditative exercise.

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