Exercises to Avoid With Degenerative Disc Disease

You should avoid certain exercises if you have a degenerative disc.

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Exercise is some of the best medicine for back pain, and it can provide relief for degenerative disc disease. However, the wrong exercise can also exacerbate your condition, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Here’s everything you need to know about safe workout practices for spinal health if you have a degenerative disc.

What Is Degenerative Disc Disease?

In between the bones of your spine, you have small disc-shaped shock absorbers that can get injured, damaged or worn down over time, especially with age, according to Cedars-Sinai. Lumbar disc issues can cause back pain when you move or that comes and goes. The pain might be worse when you sit down, bend or twist. Walking (and even running) can be good for degenerative disc disease because it might alleviate the pain, per Cedars-Sinai.

You should still exercise with a degenerative disc for overall back pain prevention and spine health. But there are some movements you might want to avoid.


Avoid any exercises that cause back pain and discomfort. This isn’t a case of “no pain, no gain.” Continuing to exercise through back pain can worsen your condition and lead to long-term dysfunction.

Heavy lifting is typically not safe when you have lower back pain. Exercises such as deadlifts put your body in an awkward forward position that, without significant core strength, can cause overstretching and strain in the low back. Add heavy weight on top of that, and you’ve got a recipe for exacerbated low back pain, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

If you’re lifting weights, choose exercises that keep the weight close to your body and be sure to lift from your legs. Always brace your core muscles by drawing your navel in toward your spine and tightening your obliques and lower back muscles.

Avoid exercises that jolt your back, per the NIH. As your intervertebral discs wear down, they can’t protect the spine from impact as well as they used to. High-impact activities such as plyometrics and high-intensity interval training may be too much for your lower back, especially if you’re still healing. It’s best to stop doing any vigorous, high-impact activities until your doctor gives you the green light.

Even then, you still need to practice caution. As its name implies, degenerative disc disease is an ongoing condition that generally gets worse with age. Avoiding these potentially unsafe exercises can help preserve the integrity of your discs.

There are some additional lifestyle measures to keep in mind for minimizing back pain and disc degeneration, according to the NIH:

  • Smoking:‌ Smoking can limit oxygen and blood flow to spinal discs, which may speed up degeneration.
  • Gaining weight:‌ Gaining a lot of weight quickly could strain your back and cause pain.
  • Carrying a heavy backpack:‌ It’s another source of stress to your back muscles and might contribute to pain.
  • Slouching:‌ Poor posture can make back pain worse.

Exercises to Try With Disc Degeneration

There are many more exercises you can — and should — do with a degenerative disc than those you can’t do. In fact, as long as you’re not experiencing acute pain, you should exercise regularly. Inactivity can make back pain worse, per the NIH.

The most important exercises for relief for degenerative disc diseases are core-strengthening exercises. Strong back and abdominal muscles work to support your lower back, according to the Mayo Clinic.

If you work with a physical therapist, they will likely prescribe core exercises for you to do at home. These may include:

  • Superman
  • Plank
  • Bridge
  • Bird dog

Aim to do core-strengthening exercises at least twice a week, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, as part of total-body strength-training workouts that target all your major muscle groups. Warm up properly before each workout and use good lifting form, avoiding any move that you feel might be painful for your back.

Low-impact cardio exercise can also help maintain the health of intervertebral discs, per the NIH. Examples of low-impact exercise include walking, swimming, biking and using the elliptical machine. Try to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of low-impact, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, per the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

Managing Degenerative Disc Disease

In addition to the exercises above, treatment for pain caused by degenerative discs may also involve physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections, heat or ice. Some people end up benefitting from surgery if at-home treatments don’t bring relief, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

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