Back Pain and Exercise: Is it Important?

According to research, 60-80% of us will experience low back pain in our lifetime. Yes, 60-80%!! That’s the majority of us, so you may want to take 2 minutes to read this. Most of us know by now that training the deep abdominals and lumbar stabilizers is imperative for back pain relief. Whether that is Pilates or really good core-specific exercises, training our trunk muscles is a key ingredient to improve low back pain. Most of us are on board with this. However, getting patients to participate in some form of aerobic exercise is a completely different story. The excuses? Not enough time to go to the gym, don’t have a gym, can’t find my shoes, my shoes don’t work, etc.  You get the gist. Well, good news! All you have to do is one simple daily function to improve your back pain.

back pain aerobic exerciseWhat is it? WALK!

In 2013, Shnayderman et al. conducted a study comparing walking versus strengthening exercises. After 6 weeks, patients were asked about their pain, fear, perceived disability and measured for their abdominal and back endurance. The results? Both groups had decreased pain and fear along with increased functional ability and trunk endurance. Further, there was no significant difference between the groups.

What does that mean? Just do something!

If you don’t like traditional exercise:  Walk.

If you don’t like to walk:  Do Pilates or some other form of core stabilization (this does not mean sit-ups!)

Even better:  Include a combination of both.

Back to the study. How often and how long did these subjects have to walk? Not as much as you think.

The first week they started at 20 minutes, twice per week. Their workout: 5 minute warm-up, moderately intense walking, 5 minute cool-down. By the end of the 6 weeks, the subjects were walking 45 minutes, twice per week (5 minute increases per week). That’s it!

Ok, so what if you don’t have 45 minute blocks of time? Try 30 minutes 3 times per week or 15 minutes every day. The take home point is that you don’t have to belong to a gym, invest in fancy equipment or buy a home video to improve your back pain. You can simply put on your shoes, go outside and breathe some fresh air (with a little pick-up in your giddy-up!)

Because I want my patients to feel their very best, I always encourage them to do core exercises AND aerobic activity. Research continually proves that aerobic exercise will decrease pain, increase physical function and improve psychological health. As much as we don’t like to think about it, chronic pain starts to mess with our psyche a bit. It’s nice to know that a little sweat will improve our symptoms physically and mentally.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking: “Blah. I don’t want to walk. Walking is boring.” Here are some other safe aerobic options besides walking.

Aerobic Exercise Options

***Note: These are aerobic options, not anaerobic. Please don’t find your local HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or Bootcamp class if you are dealing with low back pain and trying to improve it.***

  1. Elliptical
  2. Cycling
  3. Swimming
  4. Water running (or walking)
  5. Water aerobics

back pain aerobic exercise


FINAL NOTE: For most of us, surgery is not a necessary intervention. So, if you are dealing with low back pain, add at least two days of aerobic exercise along with some core strengthening each week. I promise, your back will say: “Thank you.”


Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, please share so others can learn too. 

© 2016 & Beyond. ALL BLOG CONTENT at by Lori Duncan PT

ABOUT THE AUTHORLori Duncan, DPT, MTC, CPT is a respected Physical Therapist, Manual Therapist and Pilates instructor in Lafayette, CO. Lori is passionate about preventive physical therapy and education and is a nationally recognized presenter. She can be reached at [email protected]. You can also follow Duncan Sports Therapy + Wellness on Facebook & Instagram for more free tips and information.



Meng XG, Yue SW. Efficacy of aerobic exercise for treatment of chronic low back pain: a meta-analysis. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2015:94(5);358-65.

Shnayderman I, Katz-Leurer M. An aerobic walking programme versus strengthening programme for chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Clin Rehabil. 2013:27(3);207-14.

Posted in ,


  1. Mitch on June 5, 2017 at 9:50 AM

    HI Lori,

    Do you have any advice on Degenerative Disc Disease? What kind exercise and stretches to help? And also would you advise someone with DDD to stop with activities such as basketball/flag football/golf?

    I had an MRI done and the results suggested DDD. I’m 35 and participate in those sports as much as I can. Sort of a stress relief for me.

    I really enjoy your blog posts and always find your insight so useful.


    • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on June 5, 2017 at 2:46 PM

      Hi Mitch,

      Thanks for reading my blog posts! Are you having a lot of pain or did you finally just get “a diagnosis.” Meaning, is your back limiting your activity or were you just wondering if something was going on in your back. Having an image is great, but don’t let it define you. You’re still young, so I encourage you to move through your spine (all planes). Some will suggest not going into back bending, but that is old thinking. We need to move our spine in all directions to ensure we lubricate those joints well and not cause more degeneration. I mean, you don’t need to do any backbends to floor or anything! You know I’m going to suggest Pilates to keep your spine fluid, stable and strong. To your question…if get good stability and motion in your back, there is no reason you can not play the sports you mentioned above. If you want, you can always email me at [email protected] for more specifics. Go do Pilates 🙂

      • Mitch on June 7, 2017 at 7:14 AM

        Hi Lori,
        The pain has subsided over the last 6-8 weeks. Still limited in playing as I don’t feel as flexible as before. Teammates have noticed that I looked pretty stiff last weekend. Which was the first time I’ve tried to play basketball in about a month.
        Ok I was just wondering if i should drop all sports. Continuing to play will not make my condition worse right? As for pilates, would those budget pilates reformer machines suffice? I’ve been looking online and the prices of some of those machines are sky high lol.
        Thanks again! I enjoy your blogs immensely.

        • Mitch on June 7, 2017 at 7:50 AM

          Oh and I forgot to mention that while playing I felt pain more in the leg and butt area than the lower back. Maybe I’m not fully recovered lol.

        • Lori Duncan DPT, MTC, CPT on June 9, 2017 at 8:53 AM

          Hi Mitch…I wouldn’t buy a machine unless you get a few lessons first. But, yes, they work fine. You don’t need to buy the $5,000 machine! But, you could try some Mat Pilates. I did make videos last year for this purpose. They are on Vimeo and buy them once (super affordable) and they are yours forever. Maybe start with the abdominal one to see if it’s a good fit. Click the link above that says “Pilates on Demand.” Make an account and voila! We bodies are meant to be active, so stopping activity is not the answer. Modifying to sports that feel good on your body is smart. If you are getting symptoms into your leg, I would stop the activity.

          • Mitch on June 12, 2017 at 8:42 AM


Leave a Comment

Subscribe to Our Blog

* indicates required