Walking greatly benefits people with low back pain, study finds

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A new study published in The Lancet has found that regular walking can significantly reduce the recurrence of low back pain in adults.

The research shows that people who walked regularly went nearly twice as long without experiencing back pain again.

Low back pain affects about four million Australians and 800 million people worldwide. It is a leading cause of disability and reduced quality of life.

Many people who recover from an episode of low back pain often experience it again, with seven out of ten people having a recurrence within a year.

Current best practices for managing and preventing back pain recommend a combination of exercise and education.

However, many forms of exercise can be costly, complex, and require supervision, making them inaccessible for many people.

The Spinal Pain Research Group at Macquarie University conducted a clinical trial to see if walking could be an effective, affordable, and accessible way to prevent back pain.

The trial involved 701 adults who had recently recovered from an episode of low back pain. Participants were randomly assigned to either an individualized walking program and six physiotherapist-guided education sessions over six months or to a control group.

Researchers followed the participants for up to three years, depending on when they joined the study.

The results showed that the group who followed the walking program had fewer episodes of severe back pain and went longer without experiencing back pain again.

On average, they went 208 days without pain compared to 112 days for the control group.

Professor Mark Hancock, a senior author of the study and a professor of physiotherapy at Macquarie University, said the findings could change how low back pain is managed. “Walking is a low-cost, widely accessible, and simple exercise that almost anyone can engage in, regardless of location, age, or socioeconomic status,” he said. “We don’t know exactly why walking is so good for preventing back pain, but it likely involves gentle movements, strengthening of spinal structures, relaxation, stress relief, and the release of ‘feel-good’ endorphins.”

Dr. Natasha Pocovi, the lead author of the study, added that the walking program not only improved participants’ quality of life but also reduced their need for healthcare and the amount of time they took off work by about half. “Other exercise-based interventions to prevent back pain often require group sessions, close supervision, and expensive equipment, making them less accessible,” she said. “Our study shows that walking, an effective and accessible exercise, can be successfully implemented on a much larger scale.”

The research team hopes to integrate this preventive approach into the routine care of patients who experience recurrent low back pain, making it easier for more people to benefit from regular walking.

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