Exercises for back pain

The best way to deal with back pain is to stay active and continue doing regular exercise.

“The advice given 20 years ago was to rest, but research has shown that inactivity only makes things worse,” says Dries Hettinga of BackCare, a charity that offers support and information to people with back pain.

“When you’re in pain you may want to stay in bed and not move around, but that leads to further loss of mobility and will only prolong the pain.”

Staying active means continuing with regular day-to-day activities to avoid becoming sedentary. Examples include walking to the shops rather than taking the car, getting off the bus one stop early, gardening and taking the dog for a walk.

If you experience mild pain, you're advised to take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, available from any pharmacy. 

Your pharmacist can advise on which medication is best for you, depending on your personal circumstances. 

Yoga and other exercises

If your back pain is mild, try to exercise as well as maintaining an active lifestyle. You can do any activity that gives your body a good workout.

“When choosing an  activity, pick something you enjoy,” says Hettinga. “If you do something you enjoy, you’re more likely to stick with it."

There's some evidence that regular yoga practice is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains, including low back pain, depression and stress. Find out more in a guide to yoga

There's also some research to show that pilates can provide pain relief to people with non-specific low back pain. Find out more in a guide to pilates.

Some studies suggest that the Alexander technique, a method for improving posture, can help to relieve persistent and recurring low back pain. However, the Alexander technique is not recommended by NICE as a treatment for back pain.

Ideally, your choice of activities should involve elements of endurance, as well as strength and flexibility.

Examples include walking, running or jogging, cycling, dancing, swimming, hydrotherapy (exercising in water) and aquarobics.

For low-impact exercise ideas, read our page on easy exercises.

Hettinga says that exercise programmes are most effective if performed regularly and over prolonged periods of time.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. You may want to build up to this gradually over several weeks.

Hettinga says an individually designed exercise programme gives the best results. It is advisable to seek medical advice before starting an exercise routine for back pain.

Manual therapy

Hettinga suggests combining an exercise programme with a course of manual therapy, especially when the pain is persistent. Manual therapy is provided by physiotherapists.

“Evidence suggests manual therapies can be effective. Your back is examined to see if any joints need to be freed up.

"They can do it with a gentle massage, mobilisation or manipulation. It’s especially helpful if your back is stiff and flexibility is an issue," he says.

Manual therapists are also qualified to advise you on the type of exercises that will be most effective at dealing with your type of back pain.

“You should see improvements after a few weeks,” says Hettinga. “If the pain hasn’t disappeared after a few weeks of treatment, seek further medical advice to explore alternatives.

"There is always something that can be done about back pain, but it requires some work and dedication from you.”


Back pain

Spinal surgeon Philip Sell explains what he would want to know if he was suffering from back pain.

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Next review due:

Page last reviewed: 18/09/2014

Next review due: 31/03/2017


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