Lower back pain is a common complaint, and treatment can often require many hours of physical therapy over multiple weekly clinic visits — a costly commitment. Now, for the 80 percent of the adult population who complain about back pain, there’s a new therapy that has shown promising results. And it starts as easily as stepping out of your door.
For this March 2013 study published in Clinical Rehabilitation, the researchers from Tel Aviv University’s Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions recruited 52 patients with chronic lower back pain to participate in a trial comparing different forms of exercise to manage their pain symptoms. Through questionnaires, they were initially assessed for pain levels, feelings of disability, and avoidance of daily activities, as well as muscle and walking endurance.
Then, half of the participants completed a typical clinic-based muscle strengthening program, with two to three exercise sessions a week for six weeks. The other half completed a six-week aerobic walking program, walking two to three times weekly. Participants started with 20 minutes of walking, then progressed to 40 minutes as their endurance improved.
In the end, both groups showed similar improvements in muscular endurance and mobility, demonstrating that a moderate intensity walking program has the same clinical outcomes as a traditional strength and conditioning program supervised by a professional. As an added bonus, the walkers covered more distance in the 6-minute walk test as compared to the strength and conditioning group, suggesting that they also benefited from an improvement in aerobic endurance.
Previous research has shown that when people walk actively, abdominal and back muscles work in much the same way as when they complete exercises that target these areas. And unlike muscle strengthening programs, which often call for specific equipment and can involve exercises that require expert supervision, walking is a simple activity that can be done alone. The benefits of aerobic exercise have been known for quite some time, especially when it comes to pain. Regularly active people are less likely to suffer typical aches and pains over their lifetime. Walking, a low-impact activity, also lowers blood pressure, boosts brain and immune system functioning, and reduces stress.
However, part of the difficulty with home exercise programs is that many people start with good intentions but do not sustain their regimen in the long term, without the incentive of a supervised exercise session by a health professional. In the end though, with a properly motivated person, a bit of fresh air and sun can really put a dent in their pain.