Cardiovascular Exercise After a Herniated Disc

A herniated disc can be so painful that it makes everyday tasks feel daunting. It may even cause you to give up your cardiovascular exercise routine, but a sedentary lifestyle can actually worsen your pain.

Swimming is a great exercise for people with a herniated disc. (Image: Patrik Giardino/The Image Bank/GettyImages)

Don't jump right into your normal cardio routine with a herniated disc — a "no pain, no gain" attitude can make your condition significantly worse. Instead, ask your doctor or physical therapist about the right low-impact exercises for a herniated disc, and focus on steadily building sufficient strength to exercise regularly.

Choose Low-Impact Exercise

There's a dense, fibrous disc of tissue between each vertebrae in your spine, and these discs provide cushioning and support. A variety of injuries can cause them to bulge and swell, leading to pain in your back and decreased cushioning between your vertebrae. High-impact exercise routines can place pressure on your spine, irritating a herniated disc, but low-impact exercise for a herniated disc can help you regain mobility in your back and may even be a part of your physical therapy routine.

Cardio for Herniated Disc

Low-impact cardio for a herniated disc can strengthen your back muscles. Regular cardio also helps to reduce the risk of chronic ailments such as osteoporosis and arthritis, and can help alleviate muscle pain and tension. Try swimming, which cushions your joints and helps you avoid forceful impact to your spine. Walking is another good choice, along with cycling and low-impact aerobics classes.

Exercises to Avoid

Exercises with repetitive, forceful impacts can worsen your condition, potentially causing further injury. Steer clear of running, particularly on hard surfaces. Jumping rope and jumping on a trampoline can also negatively affect your herniated disc. With your doctor's permission, you may be able to work up to these routines, but you'll likely have to do lower-impact exercises first and may have to undergo treatment or participate in physical therapy.

Herniated Disc Physical Therapy Protocol

In addition to your cardio exercise routine, follow guidelines provided by a herniated disc physical therapy protocol to strengthen muscles that support your spine to reduce risk of further injury. These exercises are best performed under the direction of a physical therapist.

According to an August 2013 article published by International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, strengthening exercises should target not only the erector spinae and multifidus muscles in your back, but also your pelvic floor, gluteal muscles, hip rotators, deep abdominal muscles and even your latissimus dorsi.

Include core exercises for a herniated disc in your exercise routine, as described by Princeton University Athletic Medicine. Master the abdominal draw-in maneuver to tighten your core, then use it to help stabilize your spine during your cardio activities.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
  2. Place your hands on your hips.
  3. Tighten your lower abs as if you are pulling your belly button back toward your spine. Your lower back will flatten against the ground.
  4. Check to see if you've contracted the right muscles — you should feel tightening of the muscles under your fingertips.
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