Can Exercise Help to Prevent and Cure Back Pain?

February 19, 2016 - Mike Dilke

I have just read a fantastic book about a guy who had been suffering back pain for months, found he had a tumour in his spine, had an operation to remove it and then four months later completed an Ironman. That is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride finished with a marathon. He is George Mahood and his book is available here - He survived and through the, admittedly relatively small amount of,  training and the event itself experienced little back trouble.

It got me thinking more about exercise to help relieve back pain. I have previously written about how the movement from horse riding can help to keep from getting stiff and strengthen the muscles used to balance here.  The motion of riding a horse does seem to help a lot of people if done gently.


How about swimming?

In general, swimming is an excellent form of low impact aerobic conditioning that is easy on the back and spine as described here. Unlike running or many other forms of aerobic exercise, with swimming there is practically no impact on the spinal structures. The water supports the body, relieving stress on all joints in the body.

However some strokes, such as the crawl, may cause hyper extension and the neck could be put under twisting pressure form the breathing action.



At first thought it appears that cycling must be fine with a weak back as there is little movement or twisting involved.

However your bike must be set up correctly so imbalances don’t lead to overuse of the lower back leading to pain. This article gives advice on bike set up and another major factor behind low back pain in cyclists which is overall fitness and flexibility levels. While cycling is a wonderful cardiovascular exercise, it does little to strengthen the core. Having a strong core will help to prevent injury by increasing stability as well as provide lumbar and pelvic protection. So while cycling might not be the worst thing for your back it won’t actively strengthen it so you may need to do something else to keep it strong and less likely to get hurt while peddling away for hours.


What About Running?

Certainly the human body is designed to move and there is some research that suggests that runners are less prone to back injuries.

However it could be that those people who are less prone to back pan become better runners. Either way if you enjoy running then it is likely to do you physchological good and if you have a careful and sensible approach the risk of physical damage will be minimised and the pluses of getting fitter and stronger have to be good. I always feel better if I have been going through a period of regular running.

This careful approach could include an assessment of your running style. You can get this from keen runner and physiotherapist, Chris McLean of Marylebone Physio in London. They carry out a whole package of tests including filming you run on a treadmill - then they slow it down and watch carefully for any aspects of your running style that could cause injury or pain.


It seems that the summary is that there are no hard and fast rules but generally keeping moving with something  you enjoy is a big bonus. However the route of just 12 weeks training after a major operation followed by an Ironman might not be for everyone!

If you experience pain and it persists seek some knowledgeable help.

Whatever you do try and keep moving and think about your posture throughout the day – there are some tips on how to do that in this article from the Independent.

Thank you very much for reading this article -