The Richmond Register

November 17, 2013

Resistance training trumps aerobic exercise for back pain management

By Dr. Jack Rutherford
Register Columnist

RICHMOND — More people visit their doctor complaining of back pain than for any other common pain except headache.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans will experience an episode of low-back pain sometime in their lives, and an estimated 30 to 70 percent have recurring back problems.

Exercise scientists recommend exercise for back pain, but which type is best?

Scientists at the universities of Regina and Alberta in Canada studied this question by placing subjects into one of two exercise groups and monitoring their exercise programs, back function and pain levels for 16 weeks.

One group did only aerobic exercise such as jogging, walking on a treadmill or using an elliptical machine. The second group did only resistance exercises with barbells, dumbbells and other load-bearing exercise equipment.

The resistance exercise group showed a 60 percent improvement in back function and pain reduction while the aerobic exercise group experienced only a 12-percent improvement.

“Any activity that makes you feel better is something you should pursue, but the research indicates that we get better pain management results from resistance training,” said Robert Kell, an assistant professor of exercise physiology at the University of Alberta.

Researchers suggest that using the whole-body approach required in resistance training provides greater benefits.

“We tried to strengthen the entire body and by doing that, we decreased the fatigue people felt throughout the day. They were better able to perform their activities of daily living,” added Kell. Aerobic exercise generally works just the lower body.

One wonders what results the might have been if a third group that combined both aerobic and resistance exercise had participated in the study.

It is well known that excess weight, especially carried in the trunk area, contributes to back pain and aerobic exercise is superior to resistance training at burning calories. Adding whole-body resistance exercises to aerobic exercise may have achieved even better overall back function and reduced pain.