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Back pain – which exercise is best?

One of the most common questions I am asked is what exercise is best for lower back pain. Patients often wonder, am I better off doing pilates or getting in the gym and doing some weights, or perhaps I should start running and stretching. There are a lot of differences between all these exercises, so how do you choose what is best for your lower back pain?

Acute lower back pain

Exercise selection may first come down to what sort of lower back pain you have and how long you have had it for.

If you are suffering from an acute, sudden episode of lower back pain the best thing you can do for this pain is to keep moving. Little and often, simply walking around the house and avoiding long periods of sitting can make a huge difference to acute lower back pain.

Under the guidance of a therapist you may then start more specific exercises to encourage more movement in your lower back (such as knee hugs or gentle rocking your knees from side to side).

As the pain dissipates over a few days or weeks, the ultimate goal will be to get you back to what you were doing before you hurt your back – this may require the guidance of a good therapist to step you through specific rehab exercises.

Chronic lower back pain

If instead you suffer from chronic lower back pain your exercise choices may look a little different. While some specific exercises may help keep your symptoms at bay, general exercise will also play a huge part in your management.

There have been various studies that have looked into if one type of exercise is better than another for back pain (cycling vs running, pilates vs weight training, etc). The general consensus seems to be that there is little difference between what exercise you chose. Instead what is best is to choose something that you will stick to doing, that you enjoy and that you find helps with your symptoms.

Which exercises reduce your chance of getting lower back pain?

Again, the main theme from the evidence suggests general exercise is best and one form of exercise is not necessarily better than another.

However, one thing that does seem to benefit is varying up what sort of exercise you are doing. Our bodies are designed to bend, lift, carry and move. So these are all things exercise should be targeted at. Therefore it may be that varying your exercise is the real answer to trying to maintain a healthy back. Stretch, lift heavy things, walk, run, cycle, play a sport. Do what you enjoy!

Conclusion – keep active.

Movement and keeping active seem to be the best things you can do for most forms of back pain. Yes, specific exercises may help in some situations but there isn’t one magic exercise that will cure or prevent all back pain – as much as some people would like to tell you otherwise!

Instead choose something you enjoy and think about having some variation in the sort of exercise you do and stick at it! Your back will like you for it!

Anthony Brindle, Osteopath