These days it’s not uncommon to hear this kind of health message from people in the health and fitness sector:
If you don’t do this _______ (insert specific exercise often named after somebody) then you risk _____________ (serious damage of some sort).
You must sign up for many weeks/months of treatment if you want to avoid injury/serious pain.
This kind of message makes me angry because firstly there is no evidence that statements like these are true, yet these messages tap into people’s fears about pain. This fear can make you unnecessarily dependent on certain therapies and in the worst case scenario it can make your pain much, much worse.
You can imagine – it’s great for business, but is it best for you, the patient?
This type of fear-mongering is not limited to one profession alone but it is wrong and needs to stop.
I would like to counter this message by putting forward my own, evidence-based, position:
Do not believe people when they tell you your back is weak or needs lots of specific therapeutic intervention to function well. Backs are strong and given the right conditions the body will always tend towards health. Sometimes we go off course and need a bit of help getting back on the path. But, this does not mean that we cannot function without the help of a specific therapy that ‘realigns’ us every week for 3 years or that we have to rely on one specific product to keep us healthy and strong.
There is not one specific exercise or treatment that is going to magically cure your back pain, although you will come across folk who try to convince you otherwise. It’s far more important to develop a regular practice of an exercise routine that you like and that works for you. Oh, and this does not have to be formal exercise of course. A brisk walk is just as good as a session in the gym for some people. Varied exercise is particularly good as it is great to challenge the body in different ways.
Learn to listen to your body and common sense advice* about health and exercise. Yes, exercise is very important but start easy and build up gradually over time. Don’t launch into a new high intensity routine without warning your body first if you haven’t exercised for 20 years!
If you are getting back into exercise you may experience a bit of pain. This is normal and ok. It doesn’t mean you have to immediately stop – remember pain and injury are poorly related. Unless you’ve fallen or overstretched yourself it is unlikely you’ve suffered an injury. However, don’t ignore the pain. Be aware of it and see what your body will let you do. If the pain kicks in hard you may have to stop for a while. But if it’s just there in the background, it may allow you to carry on for a while. Often, once your body gets used to what you are doing, you will find that the pain subsides and you can get on with your exercise routine.
When it comes to pain and exercise imagine three paths you could take: the first is ‘no pain, no gain’ – just crash straight through the pain; the second is do nothing if you feel pain. The third approach is, in my opinion, the most advisable: notice the pain, be mindful of it, try to stay active despite the pain and perhaps challenge it a bit but do listen if it really wants you to stop this particular activity. This doesn’t mean you need stop forever though. Keep returning to this in the future and see if your body will allow you to do more the next time. Try this approach and see what happens.
*not the Daily Mail.