The Benefits of Pool Exercises for Back Pain

From physical therapy to surgery, have you tried everything you can think of for getting rid of your chronic back pain — only to meet with disappointing results? If so, you may want to consider aquatic exercise. For many living with spinal conditions, water and its special properties offer a gateway to successful symptom management. Maybe this can happen to you, as well.

Two women power walk in the water
Dennis O'Clair / The Image Bank / Getty Images

The beauty of working out in the water is that it can greatly reduce the pounding effect on joints that often accompanies land-based exercise programs. And when it does, you may be able to do more work in the water than you would on land, which could make the difference between regularly participating in an effective back exercise program or not.

Depending on your physical condition and workout goals, you can do water exercise in shallow, mid-deep and/or deep water. The deeper the water, the more likely it is you’ll need a flotation belt to support you as you perform your moves. Other flotation devices commonly used in aquatic exercise classes include noodles, dumbbells bands, and paddles. Sound good? If you’re game for working out in the water, you may want to know about the benefits of doing so regularly.

Decreased Pain

In case you haven’t heard by now, exercise is a great way to keep most types of back pain in check. In fact, a study published in the journal Pain found that exercise significantly helps with management of chronic low back pain, even over the long term. And water workouts are no exception.

To understand the differences between the amount of pain relief offered by water and land workouts, Croatian researchers looked at middle-aged patients whose chronic pain was limited to their low backs. In other words, none of the study participants had sciatica, which is often caused by a problem in the spine.

The news was good. In the study, both types of therapeutic exercise did the job of relieving pain nicely, and each helped participants decrease physical disability. Plus, the researchers recommend pool exercise at the start of a course of therapy for disabled patients, commenting that working out in water is "safe, well-tolerated and an enjoyable form of exercise.”

Stay Fit While Your Heal Your Back Injury

Athletes sidelined by a spine injury can take it pretty hard when their doctors or physical therapists tell them to “back off” for a while. But the reason your provider says this is that high impact exercise has a reputation for slowing down, and even impairing, the healing process. The same is true, in some cases for, even the easiest of weight-bearing work. The pool to the rescue!

By substituting some or all your normal routine with deep water workouts, you may be able to minimize loss of fitness due to the reduction in activity without aggravating your back.

Muscle Strengthening

For us mortals, though, a bit of muscle strengthening may be all it takes to start feeling better. Generally, aquatics classes include toning work for back, ab and hip muscles. The density of water as a surrounding medium provides resistance to your movements; in this way, exercises done in the pool simulate weight training.

Increasing Joint Range of Motion

Working out in water is the preferred physical activity for many a person with spinal arthritis. Why? Because the buoyancy of the water helps take the load off joints. Not only does this contribute to exercise enjoyment, but it may also you to move each joint more, and increase your range of motion.

Even in light of these excellent benefits, if your arthritis gives you a lot of pain, or your pain has been ongoing for a long time, you may be best served by starting gently and slowly before working up to capacity. Even better, work with a physical therapist in the pool.

Core Stabilization Exercise

The pool is a great place to challenge your core. Along with common movements like water walking, bicycling and kicks, you may also be taken through a series of movements designed to strengthen your abdominal, hip and back muscles. Any water depth can be appropriate for core strength work, but it generally requires the use of one or more floatation devices for support.

Another way to develop core strength in the water is by challenging your balance. In this case, you can position yourself on certain pieces of aquatic equipment such as noodles or kickboards and try to stay there. Sitting, kneeling and standing are all fair game.


Many people find that working out in water is surprisingly fun. An aquatic exercise class offers freedom from joint stress, a way to both strengthen and stretch, and perhaps best of all, a sense of camaraderie with your fellow classmates.

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