If you’ve strained your lower back, don’t retreat to your bed or a chair with hopes the pain will dissipate — rather, staying active should help you improve. A recent study on the effects of walking on chronic low back pain found regular walking was an effective method for reducing pain and disability.
“A phrase I like to tell my patients and clients is that ‘motion is lotion,’” says Sam Becourtney, certified strength and conditioning specialist and physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. “The human body is designed to move, and performing regular exercise like walking will help to maintain appropriate strength and mobility throughout the body to both treat and prevent low back pain.”
Other research analyzing 23 previously published papers found walking can also effectively reduce low back pain by 35% for up to one year. What’s more, people who combined walking with education (learning about proper posture and strength-training techniques) reduced their risk of back pain by 45% in the same time frame, notes study author Mark Hancock, PhD, associate professor of physiotherapy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
Walking has even more benefits for lower back pain:
“In an acute bout of low back pain, surrounding muscles often tighten up in spasm as a protective mechanism,” says Becourtney. “Sitting around or taking it easy will encourage these muscles to remain in spasm. Walking, on the other hand, will tell your body that it is safe to move around and signal your nervous system to relax the tense areas, ultimately helping to improve pain.”
Decades ago, doctors used to prescribe bed rest for low back pain; today, this is outdated thinking. Walking regularly can help you feel better more quickly, because you won’t lose muscle tone. “Based on modern understanding of low back pain, advice commonly involves reassurance that a small amount of pain is relatively normal and should not be considered a sign of damage,” explains Hancock. “Remaining active, even if you have some back pain, is the best thing you can do.”
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When you exercise for prolonged periods, your body releases hormones called endorphins that may decrease your perception of pain and improve your mood. “Walking can help to treat low back pain via the release of endorphins, particularly during acute flare-ups,” says Becourtney.
Maintaining a regular walking routine can be helpful for people who experience chronic low back pain. “Previous qualitative research with people who had experienced recent low back pain found people regularly avoid activity, even after the back pain episode has resolved,” Hancock says. “Reduced activity and deconditioning after an episode of low back pain are likely contributors to recurrences and could be addressed by undertaking an exercise program.”
Walking should help lower your risk of low back pain and improve some symptoms. “Unless walking specifically causes increased back pain, someone who is already experiencing low back pain should continue walking,” says Becourtney. “Our body naturally craves movement, and walking can have benefit in both acute and chronic bouts of low back pain.”