How walking even short distances can help

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Experts say walking even short distances can help ease lower back pain. Simone Wave/Stocksy
  • Researchers report that people who walk regularly have fewer episodes of activity-limiting back pain and go longer between such episodes.
  • They said that study participants who received a mix of counseling and walking therapy cut in half their need to seek healthcare support as well as the amount of time taken off work due to pain.
  • Experts said that walking can be a cost-effective and easy-to-access therapy for lower back pain

Got recurring back pain? A new study suggests that you may be able to “walk it off.”

In their findings published in the journal The Lancet, researchers said adults who had a history of lower-back pain who walked regularly went twice as long between recurrences of pain as those who did not take regular walks.

“Walking is a low-cost, widely accessible and simple exercise that almost anyone can engage in, regardless of geographic location, age or socio-economic status,” said Mark Hancock, PhD, a senior author of the study and a professor of physiotherapy at Macquarie University in Australia in a statement. “We don’t know exactly why walking is so good for preventing back pain, but it is likely to include the combination of the gentle oscillatory movements, loading and strengthening the spinal structures and muscles, relaxation and stress relief, and release of ‘feel-good’ endorphins.”

“And of course, we also know that walking comes with many other health benefits, including cardiovascular health, bone density, healthy weight, and improved mental health,” added Hancock.

“Walking is, generally speaking, among the most important physical movements we perform in a biomechanical context–possibly on par with breathing,” Dr. Thomas Pontinen, the founder of the Midwest-based MAPS Centers For Pain Control, told Medical News Today. “Our bodies are made to walk and my opinion is the more you walk, the healthier you’ll be. Recent research has reflected this — people who walk more tend to live longer.”

“Walking allows the body to gently activate the core and distribute pressure dynamically and evenly,” added Pontinen, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Muscles that are tighter than they should be will relax a bit while those that are too relaxed will be activated. Additionally, walking helps develop muscles that directly and indirectly support the spine; these muscles span the entire body.”

Hancock and his colleagues studied 701 adults who had recently recovered from an episode of lower-back pain.

Participants were assigned to either a walking program and a series of physiotherapist-guided education sessions over six months, or a control group that did not receive either intervention.

“The intervention group had fewer occurrences of activity-limiting pain compared to the control group and a longer average period before they had a recurrence, with a median of 208 days compared to 112 days,” said Hancock.

Natasha Pocovi, PhD, the lead study author and a postdoctoral fellow in Macquarie University’s Department of Health Sciences, added that the individualized intervention tested was also cost-effective.

“It reduced [patients’] need both to seek healthcare support and the amount of time taken off work by approximately half,” she said in the statement.

Dr. Sean Barber, a neurosurgeon with the Houston Methodist healthcare system in Texas, told Medical News Today that a wide variety of underlying health problems can cause lower back pain.

“Back pain can arise due to degeneration of the intervertebral discs, degeneration of the joints connecting the spinal vertebrae to one another, instability of the spine, deformity, nerve root compression, and muscular strain/sprain, among others,” said Barber, who was not involved in the study. “For patients who have been recommended to pursue non-surgical treatment for recurrent lower back pain, exercise of some sort, avoidance of smoking, and maintenance of a healthy body weight have been shown to lead to a decreased incidence of future back pain recurrences.”

The researchers plan a follow-up study on integrating the preventative intervention into regular patient care. Exercise and education are already considered best practices for back pain management, but some programs include significant barriers to utilization, Pocovi said.

“The exercise-based interventions to prevent back pain that have been explored previously are typically group-based and need close clinical supervision and expensive equipment, so they are much less accessible to the majority of patients,” said Pocovi. “Our study has shown that this effective and accessible means of exercise has the potential to be successfully implemented at a much larger scale than other forms of exercise.”

Barber said the study is important because “nonspecific lower back pain is highly prevalent and the source of considerable socioeconomic burden.”

“The patients included in this study had little to no prior experience with regular exercise, and as such likely benefitted from the assistance of a physiotherapist in determining the ‘appropriate starting dose’ and ‘appropriate progression’ of their walking program,” Barber said. “That being said, one does not necessarily need the help of a licensed professional to begin walking or to begin light exercise of any sort.”

Prior studies have also shown that exercise can benefit patients with lower back pain, Barber noted.

“In many cases, it does not appear that particularly high-intensity or lengthy sessions of exercise are required to achieve this benefit, which is evident in the fact that the actual difference in walking volume at three months between the intervention and control groups in this study was only 600 steps – or roughly 1/4 mile – per day.” he said.

For those recovering from episodes of back pain, a walking regimen is an accessible way to ease back into exercise, said Dr. Farhan Malik, an Atlanta-based family medicine and sports medicine physician.

“I recommend starting with short, 10-minute to 15-minute walks and gradually increasing duration as tolerated,” Malik, who wasn’t involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “Proper walking posture is also key: standing tall with a neutral pelvis, relaxed shoulders, and eyes looking ahead. For long-term back pain management, a regular walking routine of 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week can increase endurance, improve mood, and provide lasting relief.”

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