Is it safe to exercise with back pain?

Featured, Fitness, Health
man with back pain

Back ache can be painful and tiring, but should it stop you going to the gym? If you’ve never been to the gym, will going help prevent back ache? Can exercise reduce your back pain? Read on for the answers to these important questions.

Should I stop exercising if I have back pain?

It’s not so long ago that you would have been advised by your doctor to rest if you had back pain, but that advice has changed in the face of mounting evidence. So health authorities are happy to encourage you to stay as active as you possibly can.

This for example is the advice of the NHS:

“One of the most important things you can do is to keep moving and continue with your normal activities as much as possible.

“It used to be thought that bed rest would help you recover from a bad back, but it’s now known that people who remain active are likely to recover quicker.

“This may be difficult at first, but do not be discouraged – your pain should start to improve eventually.”

The WebMD agrees:

“You may feel like resting, but moving is good for your back. Exercises for lower back pain can strengthen back, stomach, and leg muscles. They help support your spine, relieving back pain.”

Jatinder Gill, MD, an anesthesiologist and back pain specialist at BIDMC’s William Arnold – Carol A. Warfield, MD Pain Center says:

“Unless there are serious red flags – pain shooting down to your legs or incontinence – my first recommendation is to remain fully active … The best thing you can do is try to move on. Too much resting and lying down are not good for your back.

“Through a process called neuroadaptation, the body can adjust to pain, and the pain dissipates … Remaining active despite some aches and pains is a very powerful tool in creating this neuroadaptation.”

What is the benefit of exercising when you have back pain?

The authorities are agreed that exercising can help back pain. Of course, if you’re used to using heavy weights in the gym, you may need to use lighter weights, rest more between sets and do fewer reps.

“Back pain workouts help you recover from back pain, strengthen weak muscles and increase flexibility in tight areas. Over the years, several studies have found that physical activity decreases self-reported pain symptoms, not just for low back pain but for osteoporosis and arthritis as well. Research also shows that weight-training programs improve short-term and long-term pain symptoms.

“Weak back muscles fail to help the spine carry its load, putting unnecessary pressure on spinal discs. That’s why maintaining strong back and core muscles is so essential for preventing back pain.” Working Out With Lower Back Pain – Relax The Back

 When shouldn’t I exercise with back pain?

David Hanscom, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Swedish Neuroscience Specialists in Seattle, USA says:

“Essentially, it’s safe to exercise with low-back or mid-back pain. Back pain is only a symptom; 99% of the time the pain results from ligaments and muscles around the spine.”




The Mayo Clinic says:

“Call your doctor if your back pain hasn’t improved after a week of home treatment or if your back pain:

  • Is constant or intense, especially at night or when you lie down
  • Spreads down one or both legs, especially if the pain extends below your knee
  • Causes weakness, numbness or tingling in one or both legs
  • Occurs with unintended weight loss
  • Occurs with swelling or redness on your back

via Back pain: Symptom When to see a doctor – Mayo Clinic
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Scott Weiss, a New York physical therapist and athletic trainer offers more detailed advice. He says there are some instances when it’s smarter to go to your doctor rather than go to the gym. These include:

  • If the pain worsens at night and while lying flat
  • if it persists for six weeks or more
  • if it’s associated with weight loss and fever
  • if you’ve recently fallen
  • if you have osteoporosis
  • if you have shooting pain down one or both legs
  • if you have suddenly crooked posture
  • if you cannot stand up straight
  • if  you have to hold your breath when changing position

Is it safe to exercise if you have back pain and have never exercised?

Of course, it’s best to get medical advice on this and start slowly.

Chandra Ricks, a chiropractor, says:

“My patients have been asking me recently if going to the gym is good for mechanical lower back pain. This is the type of problem where you generally feel more stiffness and discomfort than actual pain and it usually described as more of a “niggle.”  In some regards, yes it is – the body likes to move – it loosens up the muscles and joints which often will provide some relief. However, if the activity you are doing is making you feel worse, or is hurting when you do it, you need to STOP!” via SHOULD I GO TO THE GYM WHEN MY BACK HURTS? – GreenTree …

Walking can be a great place to start, gradually increasing the number of steps you take each day. If possible, use a pedometer or smart watch to monitor your progress and encourage you to do more. Read my post on walking more and enjoying it more.

Walking briskly and other exercise stimulate endorphins, which naturally reduce our sensations of pain.

Doing stretching and strengthening exercises can really help. Check out these free HASfit videos and work along with Coach Kozak and Claudia:

12 minute lower back pain stretches

7 minute posture stretches

30 minute exercises for lower back and hip pain relief

20 minute lower back rehab

Will a lumbar support belt prevent injury?

According to WebMD:

“Workers who frequently perform heavy lifting are often required to wear these belts. There is no proof that these belts prevent back injury. One study even indicated that these belts increased the likelihood of injury.”

Staying physically active will help prevent back pain. Staying physically active will reduce many types of back pain. Take care, make changes slowly, but take the exercise that will stretch your body and release its pain.