Water Exercise for Back Pain Therapy

Water offers special properties that can make exercising less painful and more fun. If you have a back injury, spinal arthritis, or you are interested in an excellent core strengthener to help prevent back pain, water exercises, also known as aquatic therapy may be just the thing for you.


What Is Water Exercise?

Women exercising in swimming pool

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Water exercise is used in therapeutic settings to mobilize joints, increase range of motion and to develop balance and stability. If a back injury has short-circuited your regular workout routine, a water exercise program might be a good alternative during the healing period. It can help you minimize the inevitable loss of fitness that comes from being sidelined.

Water exercise takes advantage of the unique properties of water that serve to decrease pain while working out. For this reason, it is particularly good for people with arthritis, and others who cannot well tolerate weight-bearing.


Benefits of Water Exercise

Five senior women and senior man using floats in aqua aerobic class

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The special properties of water can provide you with excellent benefits if you are trying to heal a back injury, stay fit despite arthritis, or vary your normal back exercise routine. Being in water provides a relatively safe environment for working out your muscles and stretching your body. It also allows you to do more than you would on land because it eliminates the constraints imposed by gravity. Water exercise strengthens muscles, decreases pain, increases flexibility, and can be a very fun workout.


Try a Water Exercise Routine

Women using dumbbells in water aerobics, underwater view

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As with any fitness activity, there are some basic components to a water exercise session.

A water exercise routine should start with a warm-up for about 5-10 minutes. One of the easiest things to do to warm-up is a water walk. Then a series of gradually intensifying strengthening and aerobic exercises should build for about 20-30 minutes, or more if you can handle it.

After that, you can cool down (yes, you still need to cool down even though you are in the pool), with more water walking. Here is a very basic routine to get you started.


Intro to Water Exercise Equipment

Water Fitness Hand Buoys Floating in Pool

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Aquatic equipment comes in many shapes and sizes and fits onto various parts of the body — hands, waist, feet and more. The purpose of aquatic equipment is to augment the special properties of water and create further exercise benefits. Some pieces of aquatic equipment will keep you afloat so that you can exercise in the deep end of the pool without sinking. Others will increase the resistance the water provides, giving you a harder workout.


When Not to Exercise in the Water

Low Section Of Man Standing At The Edge Of Swimming Pool

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Water therapy can provide numerous benefits to people with back pain. This is because it strengthens and stabilizes your lower back, decreases pain, and increases joint range-of-motion.

But there are some situations when water exercise is not an appropriate activity. Certain forms of heart disease, history of seizures, or an active infection are a few of the yellow caution flags that may indicate sitting it out is your best course of action. If you have a medical condition, including fear of water, please consult this list for more information.

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. Shi Z, Zhou H, Lu L, et al. Aquatic Exercises in the Treatment of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review of the Literature and Meta-Analysis of Eight Studies. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2018;97(2):116-122. doi:10.1097/PHM.0000000000000801

  2. Lu M, Su Y, Zhang Y, et al. Effectiveness of aquatic exercise for treatment of knee osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Z Rheumatol. 2015;74(6):543-52. doi:10.1007/s00393-014-1559-9

  3. Tito C, Hess JB. Aquatic Therapy for a Patient with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome: a Case Report. The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice. 2017 Jul 06;15(3), Article 10.

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