Why Walking Is Good for Low Back Pain, According to Physical Therapists

Rest is not best when you have low back pain. Learn why walking is good for your back and get tips about walking from physical therapists.

Published Date: Jan 25, 2023

Our Hinge Health Experts

Dr. Heather Broach, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Broach is a Hinge Health physical therapist who enjoys treating shoulder, low back, knee, and ankle issues. She is passionate about helping active people return to their sports and activities after an injury.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with subspecialty training in hip and knee replacement, as well as advanced clinical expertise in spine care. Dr. Lee oversees the Expert Medical Opinion program at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing our exercise therapy programs and member education.

When your back hurts, your first thought might not be to get up from your comfy couch, lace up your sneakers, and head out for a walk. But maybe it should be.

Walking is one of the best things you can do for your back, both to help relieve a current flare-up and prevent future pain episodes.

"We’re not designed to be sedentary. Back muscles respond best when you use them regularly — and walking is a big part of that."
Heather Broach, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health

Why Walking Is Good for Your Back

If movement is medicine, as we like to say at Hinge Health, then walking should be in your daily pill pack. Consider all the benefits walking brings to your body (including your back) and mind:

  • Muscle strengthening. Walking tones your leg and core muscles, which shifts pressure and weight from your back to these other muscles.

  • Improved flexibility. Walking helps you maintain a healthy range of motion around your spine. “As you move surrounding muscles, you allow your spine to rotate, which helps stretch it and reduce risk of injury,” explains Dr. Broach. 

  • Weight control. A brisk 30-minute walk burns about 100 to 200 calories depending on factors like your weight and walking pace. Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce arthritis-related pain, including lower back pain. 

  • Bone strengthening. Brisk walking can help improve bone mineral density — a risk factor for osteoporosis and bone fractures, according to a 2022 study published in the journal PLOS One

  • Mood benefits. Walking releases natural pain-relieving endorphins. This can help you cope better with back pain. 

Should You Count Your Steps?

“When you use steps as a goal, it encourages you to continue to walk,” explains Dr. Broach. Research shows that there are good reasons to count steps every day. A 2019 study published in PLOS Medicine found that people who use pedometers (or step trackers) get about 30 more minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity than those who didn’t use them. They’re also 44% less likely to experience bone fracture and 66% less likely to have a serious cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke. 

Start with a reasonable goal. If you find at first that you only walk 1,000 steps a day, don’t try to jump to 5,000 right away. Instead, try to increase your amount of walking by about 500 steps a week until you reach your goal.

Here’s another interesting tidbit. While you may have heard that 10,000 steps a day is ideal, you can reap powerful health benefits with far fewer. A 2022 review of 15 studies published in Lancet Public Health found that the risk of premature death for people under the age of 60 leveled off at about 8,000 steps per day. For older adults, it was even lower — about 6,000. 

In other words, don’t let that “magic number” of 10,000 steps be a deterrent. Walking any amount brings a host of health benefits for you (and your back pain).

Walk to Connect with Nature

Walking is good for you no matter where you do it, whether on a beautiful hiking trail or a dusty basement treadmill. There are some advantages to walking outdoors. A 2020 review published in the journal Environmental Research concluded that being in “greenspace” — natural environments such as gardens, parks, or forests — helps reduce chronic pain. 

It may do this by cultivating mindfulness, which has also been shown to help relieve back pain, notes Dr. Broach. Being in nature may also help:

  • Boost your immune system

  • Lower blood pressure 

  • Reduce stress

  • Improve mood

  • Increase your ability to focus

  • Improve recovery from surgery or illness

  • Increase energy levels

  • Improve sleep

Back Exercises for Walkers 

Walking itself is important for a healthy back, but adding these stretching and strengthening moves to your routine (either before or after you walk) is even better.

Bridges

This is an important move because it targets multiple muscles that support the pelvis and the spine, says Dr. Broach. “By loading these muscles, you improve their power and endurance for those times when you might need it most, like picking up your kids or taking out the trash.”

Bridges

This is an important move because it targets multiple muscles that support the pelvis and the spine, says Dr. Broach. “By loading these muscles, you improve their power and endurance for those times when you might need it most, like picking up your kids or taking out the trash.”

Bridges

This is an important move because it targets multiple muscles that support the pelvis and the spine, says Dr. Broach. “By loading these muscles, you improve their power and endurance for those times when you might need it most, like picking up your kids or taking out the trash.”

Bridges

This is an important move because it targets multiple muscles that support the pelvis and the spine, says Dr. Broach. “By loading these muscles, you improve their power and endurance for those times when you might need it most, like picking up your kids or taking out the trash.”

Child’s Pose

This is a good gentle stretch for your back, hips, and thighs. It helps loosen up muscles that may tighten up during your walk.

Child’s Pose

This is a good gentle stretch for your back, hips, and thighs. It helps loosen up muscles that may tighten up during your walk.

Child’s Pose

This is a good gentle stretch for your back, hips, and thighs. It helps loosen up muscles that may tighten up during your walk.

Child’s Pose

This is a good gentle stretch for your back, hips, and thighs. It helps loosen up muscles that may tighten up during your walk.

Cat Cow Stretch

This movement stretches the muscles of your hips, back, and core. It also helps relieve tension in your neck and upper back.

Cat Cow Stretch

This movement stretches the muscles of your hips, back, and core. It also helps relieve tension in your neck and upper back.

Cat Cow Stretch

This movement stretches the muscles of your hips, back, and core. It also helps relieve tension in your neck and upper back.

Cat Cow Stretch

This movement stretches the muscles of your hips, back, and core. It also helps relieve tension in your neck and upper back.

PT Tip: Pick the Right Terrain

The right walking environment can make a big difference. Walking up and down hills, for example, may put stress on your back. “If your back bothers you, stick with a flat surface, such as a local track,” advises Broach.

Learn More About Hinge Health for Back Pain Relief

Our digital programs for back and joint pain are offered for free through benefit providers. Click here to see if you’re eligible.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

Shouldn’t I rest more if I have lower back pain?

No. Bed rest was once a key component of back pain treatment, but this advice is outdated. The opposite is true: “Studies show people with low back pain recover faster when they remain active,” explains Dr. Broach. If you’re dealing with a big pain flare, you may want to modify your usual activities for a few days (e.g., go for a walk instead of a vigorous gym class). Aim to keep up your regular day-to-day activities and light exercise, she advises, which includes walking.

Does walking cause back pain?

All activities can hurt from time to time, including walking. If you notice that your lower back pain worsens when you walk, you can try a few tips to ease back in: 

  • Use hiking poles for extra support. 

  • Find a route where you can take breaks (e.g., to sit on a bench). 

  • Start with a shorter walk, or break your walk into two shorter walks.

  • Explore new footwear (maybe it’s time for new kicks).

  • Work with a specialist for additional tips, like a doctor or physical therapist.

Get a Hinge Health care plan designed for you

References:

  1. Viollt, A., & Oshman, L. (2018). For adults with chronic low back pain, is a prescribed walking program as effective as formal physical therapy? Evidence-Based Practice, 21(8), 44–44. doi:10.1097/01.ebp.0000545092.83906.f0

  2. Robson, E. K., Hodder, R. K., Kamper, S. J., O’Brien, K. M., Williams, A., Lee, H., Wolfenden, L., Yoong, S., Wiggers, J., Barnett, C., & Williams, C. M. (2020). Effectiveness of Weight-Loss Interventions for Reducing Pain and Disability in People With Common Musculoskeletal Disorders: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 50(6), 319–333. doi:10.2519/jospt.2020.9041

  3. Lan, Y. S. & Feng, Y. J. (2022). The volume of brisk walking is the key determinant of BMD improvement in premenopausal women. PLOS One, 17(3): e0265250. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0265250

  4. Paluch, A. E., Bajpai, S., Bassett, D. R., Carnethon, M. R., Ekelund, U., Evenson, K. R., Galuska, D. A., Jefferis, B. J., Kraus, W. E., Lee, I-Min., Matthews, C. E., Omura, J. D., Patel, A. V., Pieper, C. F., Rees-Punia, E., Dallmeier, D., Klenk, J., Whincup, P. H., Dooley, E. E., & Pettee Gabriel, K. (2022). Daily steps and all-cause mortality: a meta-analysis of 15 international cohorts. The Lancet Public Health, 7(3), e219–e228. doi:10.1016/S2468-2667(21)00302-9

  5. Stanhope, J., Breed, M. F., & Weinstein, P. (2020). Exposure to greenspaces could reduce the high global burden of pain. Environmental Research, 187, 109641. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2020.109641

  6. Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health. (n.d.). New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Retrieved from https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html