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Health & Wellness

11 of the Best Rehabilitation Exercises for Back Pain

One of the most common setbacks of living an independent, fulfilling lifestyle in retirement years is back pain. According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly 80% of Americans experience back pain at some point in their lives. For people over the age of 60, the causes and resulting ailments of back pain can be more severe. These back pain rehab exercises can help reduce the symptoms of back pain and help you recover quicker and stronger.

Primary Causes of Back Pain

Back pain can have numerous sources, but seniors typically suffer from the degeneration of joints in the spine, causing osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It occurs when the cartilage in spinal joints wears down, leaving bones unprotected against each other. This bone-on-bone rubbing causes damage to the bones themselves, as well as inflammation and muscle spasms, which add to the severity of back pain. Spinal Stenosis is commonly experienced by older adults. It’s caused by the narrowing of the bone channel occupied by the spinal cord and nerves, which puts pressure on the nerves. When the lower back develops lumbar stenosis, the spinal nerve roots in the low back become compressed and produce symptoms of sciatica—tingling, weakness, or numbness that radiates from the low back and into the buttocks and legs. This often gets worse with activity, which leads people to avoid movement and exercise.

While both osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis can be difficult to manage in senior years, there are specific back pain rehab exercises and lifestyle changes almost everyone can adopt to help ease pain and strengthen spine-supporting muscles.


Stretches to Alleviate Back Pain

1. Bridges
The bridge stretch helps strengthen the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle of the buttocks, which helps support the lower back.

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and just your heels on the floor.
  • Push your heels into the floor, squeeze your buttocks, and lift your hips off the floor until shoulders, hips, and knees are in a straight line.
  • Hold this position for about 6 seconds, and then slowly lower hips to the floor.
  • Rest for 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 8 to 12 times.

2. Rotational Stretches
Rotational stretches help relieve tension in the lower back, as well as gently exercise core muscles to improve spinal stability.

  • Lie flat on the ground with knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
  • Keep your shoulders flat on the ground and gently roll knees to one side.
  • Hold the position for 5-10 seconds.
  • Return to the starting position with you back on the ground, knees bent.
  • Gently roll bent knees to the opposite side, hold, and return to the starting position.
  • Repeat 3 times on each side.

3. Cat Stretches
Cat stretches can ease tension in the back muscles by lengthening the back and alleviate compacted stress.

  • Start on our hands and knees, with your knees hip-width apart.
  • Arch your back, contracting your abdominal muscles up toward the spine.
  • Slowly and gently relax your abdominal muscles, easing your stomach toward the floor while slowly exhaling.
  • Return to the starting position, tightening your core.
  • Repeat 3-5 times.

4. Knee to Chest
Like cat stretches, the knee-to-chest stretch helps lengthen your lower back, relieving compacted tension in your spine. Unlike cat stretches, this stretch is performed with your back flat on the ground.

  • Lie on your back with your shoulders firmly flat.
  • Bend your knees, keeping both feet flat on the floor.
  • With both hands, gently pull one knee in toward your chest.
  • Hold this position with your knee against your chest for 5 seconds, keeping your abdominal muscles tight and pressing the spine to the floor.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Repeat with the opposite leg, alternating 2-3 times per leg.

5. Press-up Extensions
Press-up extensions are one of the easiest stretches anyone can do to strengthen their back muscles and elongate the spine to relieve tension.

  • Lie on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders.
  • Slowly press your hands into the floor, lifting your shoulders upward while gently pressing your stomach and pelvis to the floor.
  • Hold the peak of the stretch for 5 seconds.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat 3-5 times.
  • *You can alternatively keep your elbows on the floor directly beneath your shoulders, still pressing your stomach and pelvis to the floor.

Exercises to Strengthen Your Core and Back Muscles

6. Wall Sits
Wall sits are one of the more intense back pain rehab exercises, but can have a profound impact on abdominal strength, back muscles, leg strength, balance and mobility.

  • Stand 10 to 12 inches from a wall.
  • Lean back until your back is flat against the wall.
  • Slowly and safely slide down until your knees are slightly bent, pressing your lower back into the wall.
  • Hold that position for 10 seconds.
  • Slowly press against the wall, sliding back up to the starting position.
  • Repeat 8-12 times.

7. Leg Lifts
Leg lifts can improve flexibility in your legs and hips, as well as strengthening the pelvis and supporting back muscles.

  • Being on your hands and knees with your spine and pelvis in a neutral position.
  • Slowly extend your right leg backward as far as possible, keeping it aligned with your spine.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Repeat with the opposite leg.
  • Repeat 10 times per leg.

8. Partial Crunches
Your abdominal muscles play a crucial role in supporting your spine, hips and back muscles. Partial crunches are perfect for strengthening abdominal muscles while easing tension in your spine.

  • Lie with your back on the floor and bend your knees, keeping your feet flat and hip-width apart.
  • Cross your hands over your chest.
  • Take a deep breathe in, then out, flexing your abdominal muscles on the exhale.
  • Gently raise your shoulders about 2 inches off the ground while keeping your head straight and neck aligned with the spine.
  • Hold for 5 seconds at the peak of the crunch. Then return to the starting position.
  • Repeat 10 times in 3 sets.

9. Bird Dog
This strangely named bird dog exercise can help elongate your spine, relieving compact stress in vertebrae joints and relieving muscle tensions. It’s also an effective exercise for strengthening your core muscles.

  • Start on your hands and knees with your hands directly below your shoulders and knees below your hips.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles while keeping a neutral spine and looking down at the floor.
  • Lift your left arm and extend your right leg until they’re straight and horizontally aligned with your body.
  • Pause for 2-3 seconds, then return to the starting position.
  • Repeat with your right arm and left leg extended.
  • Repeat 6-8 times per side.

10. Superman
The superman is a low-impact, highly beneficial back pain rehab exercise. It works the back extensors, which are muscles running along either side of the spinal column and provide spinal and pelvic support. This exercise can also help strengthen your core.

  • Lie face down on the ground with both arms outstretched straight forward and both legs stretched flat on the ground.
  • Simultaneously raise both hands and feet, creating a gap of about 6 inches between them and the floor.
  • Flex your abdominal muscles, lifting your stomach off the floor as much as possible.
  • Keep your head straight and eyes toward the floor.
  • Stretch hands and feet as far out and as straight as possible.
  • Hold this position for 2 seconds.
  • Return to the starting position.
  • Repeat 10-12 times.

11. Pelvic Tilts
Pelvic tilts can gently strengthen core muscles, as well as loosen tight back muscles to keep them flexible. This exercise can also stretch the hip flexor muscles, helping to improve mobility and balance.

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat, arms by your sides.
  • Gently tighten your abdominal muscles and press your lower back into the floor.
  • Briefly hold the position before exhaling and relaxing your core, returning to the starting position.
  • Repeat 10-12 times.

For seniors struggling with back pain, physical therapy and other rehabilitative exercises can provide a newfound sense of independence and significantly improve overall quality of life. Here at The Waterford, our rehabilitation services are ready with the expertise and optimism to help you recover from a planned surgery, an unforeseen accident, or a major illness. Our number one goal is to get you back to your life — healthy and ready to take on your next challenge. With a physiatrist, registered nurses, and a range of physical, wellness programs, occupational and restorative therapies at your fingertips, you can live with confidence that every step you make is a step toward regaining your independence. To learn more about rehabilitation services at The Waterford, simply fill out the form at the bottom of this page.


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