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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 duncansportspt.com 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 [1] & Instagram [2] 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.