By Patrick Boylan, DC
We know that exercise is an effective treatment for low back pain, especially when it’s a chronic issue. But with all the different types of exercises out there, how do you know which will get the best results? A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2019 found that it depends on your goals. They broke it down into three categories of outcomes: reducing low back pain, increasing physical function and improving mental health. So, in honor of October being National Chiropractic Heath Month, let’s look at which types of exercise perform best in each of the three categories for recovering from low back pain.
Reducing Back Pain
Reducing pain levels for people suffering from low back pain can be a top priority. For this category, there are three types of exercise that performed best.
- Aerobic Exercise – This is one of the most common forms of exercise and can be performed by almost anyone, anytime, anywhere. Some examples include running/jogging, biking, jump roping and walking. I frequently recommend aerobic exercise to my patients with back pain because it can be done at little to no cost and regardless of skill level or physical fitness. Even adding some walking into your day can have major benefits to your overall health and pain levels.
- Stabilization Exercises – Often called “core” or “ab” exercises, these are another popular form of exercise for back pain and include things like planks, bridges or bird-dogs. Anything that works to strengthen the muscles that surround the spine can be considered a “stabilization exercise.” They are a good addition to an exercise routine, even if you aren’t shooting for six-pack abs.
- Pilates – Developed in the 1920s by Joseph Pilates, this form of exercise uses relatively low impact endurance movements to improve flexibility and build muscle strength. Pilates is a great way to work on your fitness and decrease low back pain, especially for people who like to take in-person fitness classes or follow along with an online instructor.
Improving Physical Function
In addition to Pilates, stabilization exercises, and aerobic exercise, the following exercises were found to improve physical function.
- Yoga – Similar to Pilates, yoga is often performed as part of an in-person or online class where you can follow along with an experienced instructor. Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, and traditional yoga often incorporates mindfulness and other mind-body techniques into its practice. In addition, it is great for increasing general flexibility and building strength.
- Resistance Training – This is one of my personal favorites when it comes to improving physical function. Resistance training is any type of exercise that causes your muscles to contract against an opposing force. This is often done in the form of weightlifting but can also be performed with banded or simple body weight exercises. Some resistance exercises for low back pain include squats and deadlifts, with or without additional weight. This type of exercise improves physical function because it prepares your body for daily activities, like picking up your child or lifting a heavy box.
- Water-Based Therapy – Also known as aquatic therapy, water-based exercise often involves full-body movements in a workout pool. This is beneficial because it allows for lower impact exercise while still building strength, flexibility and endurance.
Improving Mental Health
The two exercises that were found to have the greatest impact on improving mental health (depression/anxiety) in people with chronic low back pain are aerobic exercise and resistance training. This is important because so many people suffering from chronic low back pain also struggle with anxiety and depression. Exercise can have a positive impact on your physical health as well as your mental and emotional health.
While it’s interesting to see how different exercises stack up against each other when it comes to helping alleviate back pain, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Everyone is different, so it’s important to remember that the best exercise for you is something that is enjoyable, reasonable for your skill level and is something you’ll stick with. Consistency is key, and it’s much easier to keep exercising if you have fun doing it!
About Dr. Boylan
Dr. Patrick Boylan joined Logan in 2021 and serves as an outpatient clinician, overseeing patient care at the Montgomery Health Center on Logan’s campus, and an adjunct professor for Logan’s College of Chiropractic, teaching hands-on clinical procedures in the Clinical Methods course. Dr. Boylan earned his bachelor’s degree in life science from Logan before receiving his Doctor of Chiropractic in 2017.
Dr. Boylan is a member of the American Chiropractic Association as well as the Primary Spine Practitioner Network. He is a certified Primary Spine Practitioner and practices evidence-based, person-centered care for people with musculoskeletal conditions.