At age 20, he bolted through New York to set a world record—running the 100-meter sprint in just 9.72 seconds. The next year he shattered his own record and won his first of nine Olympic gold medals. Now, a decade later, Usain Bolt is considered the fastest runner ever timed.
Having a S-shaped spine hasn’t stopped him from becoming the world’s swiftest sprinter. Although scoliosis made him more prone to injuries early in his career, he’s learned a lot about managing his condition since then.
“If I keep my core and back strong, the scoliosis doesn’t really bother me,” he says. “So I don’t have to worry about it as long as I work hard.”
He is not the only Olympic medalist with scoliosis. Swimmer Natalie Coughlin won six medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics despite the 27-degree curve that sometimes causes her back muscles to lock down. The key, she says, is to keep her muscles healthy. The full-body exercise she gets while swimming helps her manage her scoliosis.
Athletes from many different sports are able to achieve incredible feats despite their spinal curves. If anything, the condition prompts athletes to pay even closer attention to their bodies as they work to maintain optimal health. For kids with scoliosis, sports can become a gateway to understanding the needs of their musculoskeletal system and how to minimize the impact of scoliosis on their lives — as long as they stay within their doctor’s guidelines.
Sports and scoliosis often go hand in hand. While many parents express concern over allowing kids with scoliosis to participate in athletics, exercise is pivotal to any successful treatment plan.
- It strengthens the core muscles that support the spine
- It keeps the body nimble and prevents stiffness
- It supports overall health and boosts self-esteem
Specific exercises can even stop scoliosis progression and help reduce curvature by retraining the brain to correct the spine’s posture.
“Most studies support physical activity for patients with scoliosis,” says the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine.
Best Sports to Play with Scoliosis
Sports are generally safe for kids with scoliosis — as long as they are careful about limiting activities that place undue stress on the spine.
Some exercises are particularly beneficial.
For example, “sports and exercises that require using both sides of the body are especially important to keep the whole body strong,” says the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. In general, low-impact activities that don’t jar the spine are safest, and burst training — short-term, high-intensity exercise — is usually recommended over endurance training.
For those with scoliosis, sports to play that help support the spine include:
“Swimming is a great exercise and has been recommended for years if you have scoliosis,” says Dr. Aatif Siddiqui, D.C. “It is highly recommended because it helps strengthen the spine in an almost weightless environment.” It also uses more of the body’s muscles — and in a more balanced and symmetrical fashion — than any other sport. But he cautions against competitive swimming for those with thoracic scoliosis. Swimming laps for hours every day can cause the thoracic spine to flatten, which could propel curve progression.
Cycling is another low-impact sport that gives a great cardiovascular workout without aggravating scoliosis curves. Limit off-road cycling, however, as high-impact jolting can compress the spine.
Soccer can be especially beneficial for young athletes with curvature in the mid back. Strengthening the core muscles helps preserve the natural curvature of the thoracic spine, which counteracts the flattening that occurs with thoracic scoliosis.
Gliding-type activities such as cross-country skiing are often recommended for scoliosis patients because they minimize shock to the vertebrae. Cross-country skiing also works both sides of the body, which is helpful for supporting a strong and balanced spine.
Building strength is critical for anyone with spinal problems, as stronger muscles are better able to support the spine; however, it is important to do it properly. “You have to increase the weight very slowly to avoid added stress to your spine, which would cause the spine to get worse,” Siddiqui said. Avoid repeatedly squatting or lifting weights above the head, which can cause spinal compression.
Yoga may be beneficial for an adult with scoliosis. Bear in mind that Yoga was not created for scoliosis; in fact, depending on your type of scoliosis, you should avoid yoga poses that cause a lot of extension to your spine.
Flexibility training is one of the most important things you can do for scoliosis. Regular stretching relieves tension and helps restore range of motion; if done strategically, it can help counteract the spine’s curvature. Just be aware of which stretches aren’t safe exercises for scoliosis. When practicing yoga, for example, use modified poses in place of those that hyper-extend or severely rotate the spine.
Sports to Avoid with Scoliosis
While playing sports doesn’t cause scoliosis, certain repetitive or high-risk activities can exacerbate the problem.
There are some types of exercise all kids with scoliosis should avoid, while certain sports aren’t recommended for certain types of curves. Also, many sports are fine to play recreationally but aren’t recommended at a competitive level because of the hours of repetition involved in competitive training. As long as you know which are which, and you have the green light from your doctor, signing your child up for sports is a good idea.
Here are some general guidelines to follow:
In general, recreational gymnastics may be safe; however, frequently participating in advanced or competitive gymnastics for hours at a time may trigger curve progression.
Like swimming, ballet is an activity that may result in a more hypokyphotic spine. If you have a thoracic type of scoliosis, you may want to avoid it.
Jumping on a trampoline may be excellent for strengthening your leg muscles, but those with a lumbar type of scoliosis should avoid it. The downward landing force stresses the spine, causing scoliosis to worsen.
Most of the time, it is not necessary to quit a sport entirely; however, young athletes should limit their participation in activities that:
- Compress the spine. Spinal compression occurs whenever a child takes a step, jumps, or runs. Repeatedly engaging in high-impact activities places significant stress on the spine and can aggravate scoliosis over time. This includes traumatic sports such as football, as well as those that involve:
- Lifting weight over the head
- Hard landings (e.g. cheerleading, gymnastics)
- Long-distance running (more than 400 meters)
- Trampoline (the downward landing force stresses the spine)
- Hyperextend the mid back. Of young athletes who have scoliosis, “the highest rates are observed among dancers, gymnasts, and swimmers,” the New York Times says. Repeatedly extending the thoracic spine — in a back bend, for example — causes the vertebrae to rotate further into the hollow of the scoliosis curve, which often propels rapid progression. Young athletes should limit back bends and use modified poses when engaging in:
- Unevenly work the spine. Some researchers have reported a higher risk of scoliosis progression in “young athletes who engage vigorously in sports that put an uneven load on the spine,” says the New York Times. These include sports that work one side of the body more than the other, such as:
- Figure skating
- Javelin throwing
While certain exercises should be limited or avoided, depending on the type of curve, scoliosis and sports participation can — and should — go together.
There is no need to avoid sports just because your child has scoliosis. Athletes with spinal curves have achieved tremendous athletic performance while deepening their understanding of their condition — and your child can, too.