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"Ouch, My Back Hurts!" What To Do When It Hurts To Exercise

By Jeanne Dunnewind, PT


Who in their right mind doesn’t want to avoid back pain? Yet, surprisingly few of us manage to escape it. Sound familiar? It probably does, because more than 90 percent of people will experience back pain sometime during their life. Being overweight or obese increases the likelihood of back pain. This is often due to the increased curve in the lower back called lordosis. As weight increases in the front of the body (usually the abdomen), there is a greater pull on the lower spine. The back arches more, putting increased stress on the muscles and joints of the back.


Pregnancy can produce this same biomechanical force; however, pregnancy is a short-term condition. The longer the strain on the spine, the more damage it can cause.


Despite the discomfort, how can you exercise with back pain? Here are a few suggestions:

  • First and most importantly consult a medical professional to determine the severity of the back issue and recommend appropriate interventions. You should get specific recommendations as to the type, intensity and frequency of exercise.
  • Keep it short. You may tolerate short bouts of activity throughout the day better than one long session. Sit to relieve the strain, and then exercise again later.
  • Use a four-wheeled walker with a seat. A walker can relieve the pressure to the spine by transferring it to the arms. You should be able to walk farther before the pain catches up. With a seat, you’ll have greater freedom of movement because you know it’s always there if the pain gets worse.
  • Lean on a grocery cart. As the spine flexes (bends), it relieves the back strain. It can be hard on the spine, however, so only do it for short periods.


You might be disappointed if you experience back pain after losing a significant amount of weight – especially if you didn’t even have back pain before. Here’s the problem: Weight loss, especially if it occurs on the front of the body, changes the mechanical stresses to the spine and the spinal muscles. The core muscles in the abdomen, back, and pelvis have difficulty adjusting to the new posture. The core muscles need to be re-trained to support your new body.


To do this, you must learn to sit and stand with good posture. The best position for the spine is just slightly curved. Pilates and yoga classes can teach you how to safely strengthen your core; sitting on an exercise ball also helps.


People who continue to have back pain may find working with a physical therapist helpful. Therapists can observe body mechanics and design a personalized exercise program. They can help you learn to manage back pain during the transition from obesity to a healthier body.