When you have a sore back, you probably want to sit or lie down and do nothing. But provided you're not risking further injury, light activity can actually help you feel better faster. Moving your body allows blood to circulate, which transports vital nutrients to your tissues and accelerates healing. Earlier this year, researchers from the Department of Biomedical and Neuromotor Science, University of Bologna, concluded that walking regularly decreases pain and increases quality of life. Those findings were consistent with two other studies from the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Chung-Ang University Hospital in Seoul, Korea, and the Department of Sport and Health Sciences, University of St. Mark and St. John in Plymouth, MA.
“Walking may be the perfect exercise. It is not only free and almost anyone can do it but it also offers some incredible health benefits,” says Jessica Smith, fitness professional and creator of the Walk On home workout program. It can also improve your mood, circulation, immune system, sleep quality, glucose levels, and balance. It can even lower your risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer's disease, she says.
Here are three ways it can reduce lower back pain, plus advice for starting a walking plan (even if you've been sedentary for a while).
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1. Walking Increases Circulation
Think of your body as one chain of muscles with your low back as the center link. Now picture your body when walking. Your arms and legs are moving, so the blood pumping from your heart has to pass through the center of your body—the spine. “Regular walking can help keep your spine healthy, but it's important to ensure you are moving with good posture to avoid any further aggravation,” Smith says.
2. It’s Practical
Walking is a fundamental action; most people have to walk to navigate their days. “As a therapist, I also think of it as a functional activity. Most people need to walk for regular activities, such as going through the grocery store,” explains Audrey Lynn Millar, PT, Ph.D., and chair of the department of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University. You’ll get through your daily activities with greater ease and less effort by practicing walking.
3. It Builds Strong Muscles
Consider walking as your all-inclusive, full-body workout. Leg movement while walking requires muscles from every part of your body. “Although you might not realize it,” Millar says, “the back muscles are working constantly to maintain the upright position. The improved circulation, along with the muscular activity in the back, helps healing and develops some endurance in the back muscles. Some studies have shown that back pain is related to poor strength/endurance in the trunk muscles.”
How to Start a Walking Program
As with other types of exercises, a proper progression that allows your body time to adapt in small increments is important for sustainable walking to decrease lower back pain. If you've been inactive, start by walking to the end of the block and back, repeating as ability increases. To progress, Millar suggests walking twice a day if your schedule allows and slowly add a minute (or a block) to the time.
Keeping a positive attitude is important to solve hurdles. Millar says marching in place while watching TV or listening to music is a great option if you don’t live in a walking-friendly area or get difficult weather. Be creative and you’ll find there is always an option to get your body walking. Gauging intensity is also an important consideration when beginning. To receive optimal health benefits, Millar says the walk should be brisk enough that you can answer a question but not talk the entire time.
How Do You Know When Too Much Is Too Much?
Walking can be a useful lower back pain treatment, but listening to your body is key. Paying attention to how you feel is critical to determining what’s best to promote healing, and using pain as a guide is sensible. “If the pain gets worse during a gentle walk or worse shortly after the walk, you need to see a physician,” Millar says.