80% of Americans will experience low back pain at some point in their lives, and at any given time 31 million Americans are dealing with lumbosacral, or low back, pain. Don’t you just love it when an article starts with statistics! It’s so science-y! Sorry, I got off track there a bit… My point is that lumbosacral (low back) pain can be considered more common than not, and with those kinds of numbers of the population being affected by something it would be handy if, say, a common gym machine that touts itself as safer than other machines were forced to come out of the closet and warn people that it is damaging to the low back and sacroiliac joints. Yes folks, the ubiquitous elliptical machine could very likely be contributing to or worsening your low back pain. In fact, research has confirmed it, and if you ask me this is only the beginning of ferreting out the trouble with the elliptical. There will be plenty more data to come, I am sure.
Not surprisingly, in my practice I see an awful lot of low back pain, and of that group, I see a pretty high percentage of them using the elliptical as their workout of choice (yes, yes my fellow outdoorsy adventurers, I could write a whole post on how the mind numbing monotony of gym machine workouts isn’t worth it, but that’s for a different post, take a deep breath ok?).
So why do they choose the elliptical machine? Because it’s the safe one of course! It was designed to reduce impact on the joints so it must be good for people! Sadly, it is the low impact design that causes so much trouble. The MSN article that I linked to above outlines the research findings of physiotherapist Janice Moreside and it has some pretty interesting information on just how the elliptical machine is moving the low back in destructive ways.
I have a slightly different view of the problem, so I’ll outline my opinion here. Normal biomechanical motion requires that our leg swings freely in a way that allows us to move fully through our toe, ankle, knee, and hip joints which concludes with the beautiful undulation of healthy spinal movement. It’s more complex than that description, but that will do for the purposes of this article. With our feet fixed on a platform which merely glides back and forth, thereby shutting down the dorsiflexion of our toe hinge (layman’s terms: when you walk there is a lifting of the heel which causes you to flex at your toe joints) all of that normal movement that is designed to take place in our toes, feet, ankles, knees, and hips gets jammed into our sacroiliac joints and lower lumbars. This causes what can best be described as a grinding movement, or the “twisting” that Moreside refers to in her research, in our lumbosacral area. In short, this area is forced to over-move to compensate for the fixed and under-moving joints of the lower body. This over-moving in a twisting plane creates a mortar and pestle effect, wearing away at your lumbar spine and sacroiliac joints. For those of you with an already overtaxed lumbosacral area, this is clearly bad news. I would argue that is is also bad news for those who aren’t symptomatic in their low backs at all. Why make your form of exercise something that runs counter to normal biomechanical movement?
I do have some good news though! When I see lumbosacral pain and an elliptical machine exerciser on the same intake form I give them my little elliptical lecture and tell them to take a month off from using it to see if it impacts their low back. While it isn’t the magic wand that cures all low back pain, nearly everyone who swears off the elliptical reports a significant improvement of their pain simply from switching workouts. Considering the agony that low back pain creates in so many people’s lives, it seems a pretty worthy experiment to me.