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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : What is the recommended exercise equipment choice for someone with a bulging disk at L4-L5: a recumbent bike, stair stepper or elliptical trainer?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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March 15, 2012
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A:

If you have back problems, choosing the right exercise for you comes down to trial and error: If you enjoy the activity, and it doesn’t cause more pain during or after exercise, the activity is probably a good one for you.

For people with back problems, including disk disease, I usually recommend activities that do not cause much twisting or “loading” of the back. Basketball, tennis and jogging are usually poor choices. But biking and swimming are often well-tolerated.

Another good choice is an elliptical trainer. You can get an intense aerobic workout with less stress on the back compared with many other activities. Some other good choices include a stair stepper or walking (on a flat surface or an incline).

Stretching is important too. Both stretching and strengthening exercises for your back, thigh and abdominal muscles often help to ease back trouble. And they may help you keep up with the aerobic exercises. Cross-training can lower the chances of making your back pain worse since you’re using different sets of muscles during your workouts.

Keep in mind: Many people with a bulging disk, as seen on an MRI or CT scan, have no symptoms at all. While others have mild or more severe pain. Your exam and test results, along with your symptoms, could make a difference in the exercises that might be best for you.

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