20 Minutes of Exercise Cuts Back Pain Risk

Author: Marissa Luck

Going on a daily 20 minute walk can decrease your risk of back pain by up to 32% if you’re overweight, according to new research.

Earlier studies have shown that being overweight, obese, or inactive increases your risk of back pain, but this is one of the first major studies to use objective measures to track activity levels with accelerometers. The study, published in the Spine Journal, included 6, 796 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

The results confirmed that the more overweight a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from back pain. The risk of low back pain was 2.9% in normal weight people (BMI 20-25), 5.2% in overweight people (BMI 26-30), 7.7% in obese people (BMI of 31-35), and 11.6% in ultra obese people (BMI of 36 or more). (A 5′ 6″ person weighting 165 is considered overweight by these measures, while another 5′ 6″ person weighing 190 is considered obese.).

At the same time, “incredibly modest” changes in physical activity was found to significantly cut the risk of back pain. The average overweight individual experienced a 32% reduced risk of back pain if they increased their amount of moderate physical activity by fewer than 20 minutes per day. (Moderate activity could be brisk walking, gardening, or riding a bicycle.) In ultra obese individuals, increasing activity levels by just 1 minute per day reduced the risk of back pain by 38%.

These findings provide hard data for what chiropractors and other spinal specialists have noticed for years. That’s why many chiropractors support patients in weight loss to prevent and reduce back pain. In fact, earlier research has shown that not losing weight may interfere with the benefits of physical therapy and other noninvasive treatments for back pain.

Currently there are two main theories to explain why obesity increases the risk of back pain. It’s possible that the extra weight creates mechanical changes affecting the spine, or that metabolic changes lead to hormonal changes and inflammation. While scientists have yet to determine the exact causes, it’s clear that your weight and risk of back pain are closely connected.


Fauber, J. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today. October 10, 2013. Accessed Novemeber 25, 2013. http://www.medpagetoday.com/MeetingCoverage/AdditionalMeetings/42209

Smuck M, et al. Does physical activity influence the relationship between low back pain and obesity? Spine Journal 2013; pii: S1529-9430(13)01649-5. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2013.11.010.


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