Study shows exercise is the key to reducing back pain

woman getting up from couch holding back

As the years tick over, most of us notice the increasing frequency with which we utter words such as ‘ouch’ and ‘oh’ as we lift ourselves out of our armchairs. In fact, many of us don’t even form what could be termed a ‘word’ as we do so. It can be more of a neanderthal grunt.

The driver of these utterances, be they real words or otherwise, is usually pain that accompanies what should be a simple act. For some it might be pain in a knee or shoulder as you use your arms and legs as leverage. And for many, the source of the pain is the back.

Back pain is a common complaint for many over-50s, and the effects can range from distracting to debilitating. So what can be done about it? Well, the good news is that many of us can do something about it ourselves.

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A new study published by the University of Portsmouth offers strong evidence, perhaps counterintuitively, that exercise can significantly reduce the incidence and severity of back pain.

What sort of exercise will you need to do?

If you’re hoping a walk around the block a few times a week will be the magic bullet, you’ll likely be disappointed. The study found that strenuous exercise is the key. Activities such as digging in the garden or other types of physical labour, along with vigorous sporting exercise such as tennis, jogging, cycling and swimming are more likely to yield success.

And these activities must be done frequently, three or more times a week, to achieve best results.

What are the causes of back pain?

According to Musculoskeletal Australia (MSK), a consumer organisation working with, and advocating on behalf of, people with arthritis, osteoporosis, back pain and other musculoskeletal conditions, the causes of back pain are not fully understood, but some of the more common causes include arthritis, muscle and ligament strains, sciatica, osteoporosis and even stress (as a result of increased muscle tension).

Read: New study links exercise with better cognition

The pain can be exacerbated by factors such as lack of exercise, being overweight or obese, sitting for long periods and poor posture.

Simply being female can also be a factor, possibly due to hormonal differences.

But the Portsmouth University research offers hope. The decade-long study of 5802 people aged 50-plus provides evidence that vigorous exercise can go a long way towards preventing back pain. According to Dr Nils Niederstrasser, who led the study, any activity is good, “but mild exercise does not appear to have a long-term effect on the development of chronic pain. Activity needs to not only be vigorous, but it also needs to be done at least once a week.”

What else can you do to relieve back pain?

Stronger muscles in and around the back may help to reduce the risk, according to celebrity fitness guru Dalton Wong. Mr Wong says: “Strong muscles will help to avoid back, neck and shoulder pain, yet many of us neglect to work them. Strong shoulder muscles will release tension in the head and neck.”

Read: Cocoa could bring sweet relief for those with walking pain

If you’re looking for an easy solution with supplements such as glucosamine, think again. Uzo Ehiogu, a physiotherapist at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, says: “There isn’t a supplement that will cure back pain.”

Exercise and hard work are your best bets. If you’re able to, grab a spade and you might be able to dig your way out of trouble – literally!

Do you suffer from back pain? What treatments or strategies have worked for you? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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