Exercise is a key component of treating degenerative disk disease. Although no specific exercises are unsuitable for everyone, there are some that it may be wise to avoid.

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It is not possible to list exercises that are suitable or inappropriate for all people with degenerative disk disease. The best types of exercise will depend on the location of the injured disk, a person’s overall health, and their plan for recovery.

Expert guidelines do not include any specific recommendations, but some blogs and message boards offer lists of exercises that people may wish to avoid. It is generally a good idea to stop if an exercise is painful and to refrain from performing high impact activities.

Read on to learn more about exercises to avoid, exercises to try, and more.

There is no specific list of exercises that everyone with degenerative disk disease should avoid. Despite this, it is typically advisable to avoid exercises that cause pain, discomfort, or soreness.

It may also be best to avoid high impact exercises, such as running or jumping on a trampoline, early in the recovery period. These exercises place additional stress on the disks.

Emerging research suggests that even high impact exercises such as running may improve disk health over the long term. However, this research indicates that performing daily physical activity can help prevent disk disease, not treat it. High impact exercise is not advisable for people who already have degenerative disk disease.

Despite this, exercise and physical therapy play a key role in recovery.

A person should work with a doctor or physical therapist to determine which exercises to try and which to avoid.

Some general tips that can guide a person’s exercise plan include:

  • avoiding anything that causes physical pain, especially in the back, as this is a sign that the exercise is irritating the affected disk
  • avoiding high impact exercises — which include jumping on a trampoline, jumping rope, step aerobics, and sprinting — immediately after sustaining a disk injury
  • talking with a physical therapist before starting a new exercise routine, as a person may need to build their core strength before being able to exercise safely
  • avoiding heavy weightlifting unless a healthcare professional says that it is safe
  • talking with a qualified personal trainer or a physical therapist about proper form before doing situps, crunches, or other core exercises

Exercise is one of the most important aspects of treatment for herniated disks and degenerative disk disease.

For most people, conservative treatment — which is nonsurgical treatment that includes exercise and physical therapy — provides a positive outcome. Exercise can help a person regain mobility, and it can also reduce pain and prevent secondary injuries.

When a person is in pain, they may move less or in ways that compensate for the injury. This can cause additional stiffness and pain.

However, the right exercises can help prevent this. A person should start slowly, gradually building up to longer or more frequent exercise sessions.

Some exercises to try include:

Walking

Walking helps retain and improve mobility. One key aspect of recovery is avoiding sedentary behavior, and walking is a low impact, accessible form of movement that keeps people active.

A 2017 study also found that accelerating while walking correlates with healthier intervertebral disks.

Core-stabilizing exercises

Building core strength can help a person avoid using their back muscles in a way that increases the risk of injury.

A small 2021 study found that core-strengthening exercises improved symptoms in people with degenerative disk disease. However, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions because of the small sample size.

Some core exercises that may help include:

  • Bird-dog: Start on the hands and knees on a firm surface. Raise the left leg up straight behind the body so that it is level with the hips and back. Extend the left arm straight out and hold for a few seconds. Repeat on the other side. Continue switching sides to complete several repetitions.
  • Toe taps: Lie on the back on a firm surface. Bend the knees to a 90-degree angle and elevate the feet. Extend the left leg out and lower it, gently touching it against the ground. Hold for 2 seconds, then return the leg to its original position. Repeat on the other side. Perform at least 10 repetitions on each side.
  • Marching bridges: Lie on the back. Lift the hips and pelvis off the ground while keeping the feet flat on the floor. The hips should form a diagonal line with the knees and shoulders. Lift one foot off the ground while bending the knee and pointing the toes toward the ceiling. Lower the leg and repeat on the other side. Aim for a total of 20 repetitions.

Stretching

Stretching-based exercise routines, such as yoga and Pilates, may ease pain and help prevent the further loss of mobility. People can try the following exercises:

  • Pelvic tilts: Lie on the back with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor. Breathe in, then exhale and push the lower back toward the floor, tightening the abdominal muscles. Hold for 5–10 seconds.
  • Knee-chest stretch: Lie on the back with the legs extended straight out and the shoulders relaxed. Bend the right knee and draw the leg up toward the chest. Hold for 5–10 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
  • Trunk rotation: Lie on the back with the knees bent to a 90-degree angle and the feet elevated. Slowly lower the knees toward the left side, keeping them bent at a 90-degree angle. Lower them as close to the floor as they will comfortably go, then hold for 5–10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Exercise is an important part of treatment. Some other treatments that may help include:

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can help a person manage the psychological challenges of living with pain. It may also help reduce stress-related tension and pain.
  • Medication: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may help ease inflammation and pain. A doctor may recommend other pain medications if a person is a good candidate.
  • Injections: An epidural injection can ease the pain of disk degeneration for a short period, but the data supporting its use are not conclusive.
  • Activity modifications: A person may need to change the way they do certain activities to reduce pain. Changes in posture can also help.
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist can suggest activity modifications, make exercise recommendations, and offer rehabilitation that can steadily ease pain.
  • Surgery: If nonsurgical treatment proves ineffective and a person has significant pain, a doctor may recommend surgery. The two main surgical options are total disk replacement and discectomy and spinal fusion, which removes the affected disk and fuses the vertebrae where the disk used to be.

A person should speak with a doctor if they have back pain that does not improve with home treatment. They should also contact a doctor if:

  • the pain gets worse with home treatment
  • exercise or physical therapy is too painful
  • they develop additional symptoms, such as a fever

Living with degenerative disk disease can be challenging and painful, and a person may have difficulty doing the activities they once enjoyed.

Activity is an important part of managing the condition, though. People should pay attention to how their body responds to various activities and choose ones that work for them. However, it is best to proceed cautiously and avoid high impact or intensive exercise unless a doctor advises it.

A doctor or physical therapist can make specific activity recommendations based on a person’s needs, lifestyle, and overall health.