Losing Weight for Back Pain Relief

It's only natural to assume that, along with controlling your risk for heart attack, diabetes, stroke and other degenerative diseases, losing weight can help you get rid of back pain.

Experts agree that losing weight successfully may result in partial or complete back pain relief. Dr. Andre Panagos, physiatrist and director of Spine and Sports Medicine in New York notes, "every single patient in my clinic who loses a significant amount of weight finds their pain to be vastly improved."

The reason for this, Panagos explains, is that if you are heavier than your ideal weight, your muscles will need to work harder in order to help you accomplish everyday tasks. Plus, the extra load that is put on the spine can take vertebrae out of alignment, which may lead to joint strain—another potential cause of pain.

"When you lose weight, you are effectively reducing strain on your spinal column and back muscles," Panagos adds.

Weight Loss and Back Pain

Medical research makes a pretty good case for the relationship between back pain and obesity. But it still has yet to confirm that obesity is an actual cause of spine problems. That said, a 2016 study published in the journal Medicine, did find that high-intensity back pain and/or disability was associated with increased obesity in a large sample of men.

More and more, health professionals are directing their patients toward making common-sense choices for the purposes of pain management. These include maintaining a physically active lifestyle and keeping weight in check.

How Much Do You Need to Lose to Get Relief?

How thin is thin enough to get back pain relief?

Many experts recommend staying within 10 pounds of your ideal weight to keep your back healthy and pain-free.

Once you know your caloric goal, maintaining a healthy diet that restricts calories and engaging in regular exercise is crucial to achieving your ideal weight.

The good news is that physical activity also helps manage back pain. In fact, exercise may be your best bet for preventing and managing chronic low back pain. The American Family Physician reports that adhering to an aggressive exercise program as administered by a physical therapist may even help patients avoid back surgery.

Exercise Programs for Weight Loss and Back Pain

A 2016 study found that sticking with a general exercise program may help you reduce chronic non-specific low back pain. Such a program might include strength training, stretching and aerobic activity. The study authors say that developing flexibility may help improve functional movement, and aerobic activity may increase blood flow and nutrients that go to the soft tissues of the body. This, in turn, may help reduce back stiffness.

And don't forget your core. The researchers say that a strong core plays an important role in support of the low back.

Aerobic Activity and Back Pain

A key ingredient in nearly every type of weight loss program, aerobic activity is any rhythmic motion that uses the large muscles of the body and is maintained continuously for at least ten minutes. Obviously, choosing activities that minimize pounding on your joints is best if your back is hurting. Walking, and in particular, cycling, swimming, and aquatic exercise are good low and moderate impact activity choices.

One half-hour of aerobic activity performed 5 days per week is the amount generally recommended by experts for realizing health benefits. If that's too much, start with less and build up over a period of weeks or months.

You can also accumulate workouts throughout the day. For example, walking for fifteen minutes twice per day counts as 1/2 hour of aerobic exercise in one day. Key here, is to no do less than ten minutes at a time.

Strength, Flexibility and Back Pain

It's well-known that strengthening and stretching trunk muscles (especially the abdominals) and muscles around the hips provides support for upright body posture and for the spine itself. Regular practice of yoga, Pilates or other mind-body workouts can help you do just that. These types of programs help develop balanced strength in the muscles that control the pelvis and trunk. This, in turn, can protect your back by facilitating an even wear and tear on your joints and by taking the load off your spine. See above for a few ideas.

Exercise Precautions for People with Back Pain

While exercise is highly touted for reducing back pain, some conditions warrant safety modifications. For example, exercise is not recommended for an acute low back injury. Ask your doctor or physical therapist for guidance if you feel you need it. Meanwhile, here are a few tips:

  • Try to find the right level of intensity and time—not too much, not too little. If you have acute low back pain or sciatica, for example, a good rule of thumb might be instead of doing a workout, set a goal of avoiding bed rest, but also remaining pain-free as you resume daily activities. 
  • If you just can’t get comfortable with exercise, or it seems as though pain follows your every move, you may want to try an even gentler approach. Activities that seek to relax the tension and realign your body posture may help condition muscles and lubricate joints. In turn, this may help prevent re-injury and prepare your tissues for more intense exercise.
  • Some examples of the gentler approach might include a water exercise routine or restorative yoga pose sequence that consists of:
    • Pelvic tilts
    • Spinal twist
    • Cat-cow stretch
    • Tadasana
  • Also, a restorative series of Pilates exercises, aptly named pre-pilates, will likely give you a full-body range of motion and gentle abdominal workout.
  • Other activities that are gentle but can get you moving again include tai chi and Feldenkrais. 

    By the way, if you are morbidly obese, i.e., 100 or more pounds overweight or a BMI of 40, or you are 35 years of age or older and experiencing obesity-related health issues such as high blood pressure, you should work with your doctor to lose the weight.

    In fact, it's best to speak with your doctor before embarking on any weight loss program.

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    Article Sources

    • Source:
    • Bigos, S., MD, et. al. High quality controlled trials on preventing episodes of back problems: systematic literature review in working age adults. The Spine Journal. 2009.
    • Gordon, R., A systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-specific Chronic Low Back Pain. Healthcare (Basel) June 2016. 
    • Khoueir, P. et. al. Prospective Assessment of Axial Back Pain Symptoms before and after Bariatric Weight Reduction Surgery, presented at the 76th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons in Chicago. April 2008.
    • Patel, A., MD, Ogle, A., MD. Diagnosis and Management of Acute Low Back Pain American Family Physician website. March 2000. 
    • Wai, E., MD, et. al. Evidence-informed management of chronic low back pain with physical activity, smoking cessation, and weight loss. The Spine Journal 2008.