County Durham men embark on unique exercise programme with life-changing results

A new North East training programme is helping people with crippling back pain get back to a full, active life

Norman Clarke taking part in the unique Cardi-Back programme
Norman Clarke taking part in the unique Cardi-Back programme

A grandfather who was told he had a crumbling spine and faced life in a wheelchair has celebrated his 60th birthday by climbing Helvellyn, thanks to a funded physical activity programme that turned his life around.

A decade of chronic back pain left Norman Clarke unable to carry out his job as an engineer or even watch his beloved football team Sunderland AFC, as sitting for two hours would leave him in agony and he thought his love of fell walking was definitely a thing of the past.

Doctors diagnosed a crumbling spine and told him there was nothing they could do, offering him a disabled blue badge and warning him to expect to need a wheelchair in the near future.

But he was persuaded by his son to give a course called Cardi-Back a try.

Run by County Durham physiotherapist Neil Sleeman the unique Cardi-Back programme offers exercise, education and support for people with a past history of back pain and decreased physical activity.

The project is part of the Move4Life programme, supported by Durham County Council Public Health and County Durham Sport, aiming to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in County Durham through increased physical activity.

Now two years on Norman is virtually pain free and has just marked his 60th birthday by hiking up Helvellyn, England’s third highest peak, with his four children, their partners and his two grandchildren Phoebe, 13, and Sonny, eight.

Norman Clarke taking part in the Cardi-Back programme
Norman Clarke taking part in the Cardi-Back programme

“I was told by the doctors there was nothing they could do,” said Norman, who lives with his wife Susan in Trimdon Grange, County Durham.

“It affects you mentally as well as physically, as I was only in my early 50s but I was walking like an old man and I just couldn’t see how we were going to manage.

“But Cardi-Back turned my life around without a doubt. Neil told me it was a muscle problem and could be helped with exercise and I began to see an improvement almost straight away.

“It’s now two years since I started it and I have basically no problems at all.

“I used to love fell walking when I was younger, but due to my back problems I had not been able to do it for a long time and when the doctors told me I’d need a wheelchair, I thought my hiking days were over.

“So I decided for my 60th birthday I would set myself a target and take my whole family and climb Helvellyn in the Lake District.

“It was the first time they had done anything like that before, so it was wonderful to see the exhilaration on their faces when we walked across Striding Edge and get the adrenalin rush when we reached the top.”

With his back pain resolved Norman has also been able to take up a new job as a security guard, after being made redundant from the engineering job he had held for 23 years.

Peter Storr taking part in Cardi-Back exercise class
Peter Storr taking part in Cardi-Back exercise class

“Two years ago I never would have thought this would be possible,” he added. “I have a new job and I am back watching the Sunderland games too and it is all thanks to Neil and his team at Cardi-Back.”

Norman attended eight Cardi-Back sessions which were divided into exercises focused on the Swiss Ball, cardio-vascular work on equipment including an exercise bike and multi gym, and a weekly education session covering topics such as the causes of lower back pain and risk factors for heart disease.

He then went on to 16 weeks of Cardi Fit, a follow up self-funded programme which was developed to support those who wanted to continue to exercise at a higher intensity in a similar environment.

Cardi-Back was developed to address the link between lower back pain and physical inactivity, which also leads to an increased risk of heart disease.

The programme consists of supervised exercises for lower back and cardio-vascular benefits, weekly education sessions covering both of these topics, and links to other health related activities in the county.

More than 600 people have come through Cardi-Back at eight locations around County Durham since April, 2010, and due to its effectiveness there are plans to expand the programme around the country.

The results from the first four years showed that 80% of participants had significantly decreased lower back pain after Cardi-Back, as well as changes in weight and blood pressure.

Most importantly, nearly three quarters of participants had maintained their increased physical activity levels six months after the eight week programme had ended, meaning they have incorporated lifestyle changes which will enhance their quality of life in the long term.

Neil Sleeman, head physiotherapist at Cardi-Back said: “Norman had a history of chronic lower back pain and did extremely well with the programme which greatly improved his condition.

Peter Storr has had his life turned around after taking part in Cardi-Back exercise class
Peter Storr has had his life turned around after taking part in Cardi-Back exercise class

“Cardi-Back is unique in that it targets both lower back pain and physical activity, and for this reason we want to enable more communities to be able to access it.

“We are in talks with a number of public and private organisations already as the benefits in terms of decreased absenteeism at work, physical activity levels and long term health are important for all of us”.

Andrew Power, strategic manager for physical activity for County Durham Sport said regular physical activity can deliver many positive benefits, both physically and mentally.

He said: “If approached in the right way, with the right kind of advice as offered by programmes such as Cardi-Back, it can make a significant impact on people’s quality of life including the prevention of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease.”

Another man who has benefitted from Cardi-Back is Peter Storr, who would be left in agony just standing or walking a mere 50 metres after a bulging disc meant it was nearly impossible for him to do the exercise he needed in order to reduce his weight.

Long-term back problems that began when he suffered spinal injuries in two car crashes when he was 18 led Peter to cut down on exercise and his weight gradually ballooned to 23 stones. His size combined with chronic back pain left him feeling desperate about how he was going to get his life back on track.

But since starting the unique programme his back pain has significantly reduced and he is now able to throw himself into more rigorous exercise to help him lose weight and lead a healthier life. He has even taken up cycling again after 20 years and is doing this two to three times a week.

“I passed my driving test in 1992 and within nine months two people had helped rearrange the rear ends of my cars,” said Peter, 39, a photographer and filmmaker, from County Durham.

“In the process they managed to damage my spine. The usual series of events followed: too much exercise caused pain so I cut down on the sport and exercise. My job involved me sitting for eight hours a day and my waistline started to expand.

“In 2006 my wife had our first child and I decided it was time I lost a massive 15 stones.

“By February 2013 I had managed to lose some weight but unfortunately an awkward twist while exiting a car plus years of excess weight combined with the original weakness caused a spinal disc bulge.

“By Christmas I could barely walk 50m before the pain became so agonising I would collapse. I was told that surgery wasn’t really an option as there was just a 30% chance of success and I couldn’t see a way forward.

“I knew I needed to lose weight, but the pain was so bad that exercise was nearly impossible. I couldn’t play with my kids in the park, even going on holiday would be a struggle.

“Then a previous client of Cardi-Back suggested to me that the programme might help and I just thought I’d give anything a go.

“The first week was very hard, but by the third week my back wasn’t hurting at all when I did the exercises. The ball exercises, while difficult due to my novice level, completely obliterated my pain and that allowed me to push harder at the circuit section of the course.

“Whenever I feel the back pain start I just do a basic session on the ball at home and within minutes the pain is gone.

“As I am able to exercise more, I am losing weight faster. I’ve taken up cycling again too through the Move into Sport classes and cycled 35 miles last week.

“After six months of agony and years of back problems I can’t believe how quickly my life has been turned around and I am so grateful to Neil and his team for what they have done.”

Cardi-Back physiotherapist Neil said Peter’s long-term prognosis is now excellent from both a lower back and cardio-vascular health aspect.

He added: “Peter had significant lower back pain when he started Cardi-Back and this was causing apprehension for a number of daily activities that would normally be carried out without a moment’s thought.

“The first week or two of our programme showed that Peter had a strong desire to improve as it was not easy for him, but as the weeks went on he soon improved and more importantly enjoyed each and every new exercise.

“At the end of the eight weeks the physical changes were obvious to the whole group, and Peter has continued onto our follow on Swiss Ball circuit classes that run six times weekly.

“He is now carrying out exercises on the Swiss Ball that many of our most experienced clients still find challenging, and his strength continues to make rapid gains.”

A number of years ago, The Journal joined forces with Nova International to launch our Great North Fitness Revolution.

The Great North Fitness Revolution is challenging everyone to make a pledge to get active and make the positive changes that will lead to a better quality of life, and Cardi-Back is one scheme that is helping people in the region get more active.

From training for the Great North Run to something as simple as increasing the number of steps you walk each day, everyone can get involved.

The Great North Fitness Revolution received the backing of a host of famous faces, including TV presenter Ben Shephard, Olympic boxer Tony Jeffries, athlete Steve Cram and former Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn.

For more information about Cardi-Back contact Neil Sleeman, physiotherapist on 0191 3729821 or email or visit


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