Working Out With Lower Back Pain—Is It a Good Idea?

Many people believe that pounding through pain is necessary for keeping up with their fitness goals. Does this describe you? If so, and you maintain that attitude when your back is giving you problems, you may be paying too high a price for a great body.

What should you do if you want, or need, to exercise when your back is sore? Here are a few tips.

A yoga instructor correcting her student
 Cultura / Liam Norris / Getty Images

Use Body Awareness

The old adage "err on the side of caution" is applicable when you are considering exercising with back pain present. Whenever possible, it's best to choose a workload that keeps your body free of pain. If you can't do that, reduce your pain as much as you can by lightening up on the intensity, and watching your body mechanics.

If you have any questions or safety concerns, chat with your healthcare provider and/or physical therapist about them.

Have confidence in your own body awareness. You are the person who is in the best position to decide if exercise is a good course of action for you, and at what level.

Key here is paying attention to your pain intensity levels, when the pain comes on, what brings it on—especially positions and movements—and the type of pain you experience.

For example, electrical sensations, pins, and needles, burning pain, as well as numbness or weakness going down one leg or arm are suggestive of a medical condition known as radiculopathy. In this case, seeking medical attention may take precedence over getting a hard workout.

Dr. Andre Panagos, physiatrist, director of Spine and Sports Medicine in New York City, agrees, encouraging people to "take ownership of their bodies." Panagos gives patients—not healthcare providers, fitness trainers or exercise instructors—the credit for knowing when working out is not a good idea.

If today is not the best day to exercise, the usual recommendation is to scale back on activity levels to the point where your pain is either manageable or gone, while at the same time not succumbing to full out bed rest. Most experts say this is the quickest way to get past an episode of back pain.

Shift the Intention for Your Exercise Routine

Once you're sure your back can handle a bit of work, get clear about the type of exercise to do.

You might ask yourself: Given my pain level (plus its location), is it better for me to stick with my usual activity, or might I be better off scaling down a few notches by means of an easier activity? An example comparison may be lifting weights or running vs. a light stretching session or an hour of aquatic exercise.

A workout to help you get past a bout of back pain is similar to an easy day workout—as long as you prioritize pain reduction.

If doing the specific movement in your chosen workout will challenge your joints to go beyond a moderate range of motion, you may need an easier activity. If not, scaling down the intensity of your usual routine may suffice.

Home Therapies to Get You Over the Hurdle

If your back pain is mild, you could try home therapies such as ice, massage, heat or over-the-counter pain medications to help you through this time. This is the route many professional athletes take when they have to deal with back pain at game time. It seems to work for them!

But home remedies are not for everyone. If you think you may have a torn ligament or a broken bone—or another significant injury—see a healthcare provider. Other reasons to speak with your healthcare provider include if you have a fever, unexplained weight loss, or have experienced a traumatic event. 

How About Some Walking?

One often overlooked form of exercise for people with sore backs is walking. Substituting walking for a harder workout may help you keep the health benefits of aerobic activity going—not to mention alleviating some or all of your pain.

That said, walking may only be a short-term pain relief solution.

A 2015 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine Rehabilitation found that while walking is associated with improvement in chronic musculoskeletal pain, including back pain, its effectiveness as a long term fix is not certain. The study authors caution that walking needs to be supplemented with specific strategies that target your back or other problem area(s).

General Strategies, Revisited

Once an injury or other cause for your back pain has been ruled out, many people find that small modifications to their exercise routine are all they need in order to continue developing fitness.

Along with the suggestions above, you may want to consider water exercise, which can take the load off your joints but still give you a full workout. Or, as discussed above, modify downward your normal routine in terms of its intensity and duration.

And adding in some yoga or core support work may help to release muscle spasms, while at the same time developing strength in the right places namely, your abs, back, and hips—all key for back pain management.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Radiculopathy.

  2. Panagos, A., M.D., Spine and Sports Medicine New York City. Phone Interview. 2008.

  3. O'connor SR, Tully MA, Ryan B, et al. Walking exercise for chronic musculoskeletal pain: systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2015;96(4):724-734.e3. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2014.12.003

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.