The short answer is: YES
If you’re overweight and you’ve got lower back pain, the two are probably related.
Many people find that after losing weight, their back pain is either substantially reduced – or totally gone!
Can Being Overweight Cause Lower Back Pain?
While there’s no studies I’ve found that show a causal relationship between your weight and your lower back health, most doctors agree that excess weight adds extra strain to your back, and there are several studies that show a correlation between weight loss and lower back pain relief.
Let’s start by remembering that our spines have a really important job: supporting the rest of our body weight.
We’ve all got over 30 small bones in our spines (vertebrae) that are stacked together and separated with spongy cartilage that absorbs the pressure from all the moving around we do.
Because your upper body weight is supported by your abs and lower back (your core), carrying extra weight in your stomach adds a ton of stress to that system and puts pressure on your intervertebral discs as they try to compensate.
(In fact, losing just 4 pounds will take 16 pounds of pressure off of your spine!)
When you’re overweight your spine tilts out of its proper alignment, pulls your pelvis forward and can cause the discs to bulge out.
This puts you at risk!
When this happens, stress is distributed unevenly across your spine, seriously increasing your risk of injury or sciatica.
Being overweight can also point to a more sedentary lifestyle, meaning the muscles in your lower back and abs are more likely to be weak and less flexible, once again adding to the risk of back trouble.
What Are the Risks of Being Overweight for Your Lower Back?
There’s a reason that the North American Spine Association recommends staying within 10 pounds of your body’s ideal weight to keep your back healthy…
- A study by the American Obesity Association found that patients with a Body Mass Index of over 25 (overweight) are more likely to develop osteoarthritis than those with a lower BMI
- Early signs of disc disease are twice as common in overweight children; a condition that can cause serious problems later in life.
- A study conducted in Hong Kong and published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism studied over 2,599 men and women and that found that being overweight increased your chances of developing degenerative disc disease by 30 – 79%!
- While it’s not causal, it’s worth noting that the obesity rate in those who require back surgery is higher than that of the general population, and that obesity significantly increased the length of your hospital stay post-operation.
What Can You Do About It?
I’m not going to pretend that weight loss isn’t a serious challenge –it takes a lot of commitment and motivation to change your lifestyle.
But think of it this way: Reducing the weight your spine needs to support will do nothing but help your lower back pain – and reduce your risk of things like heart disease and diabetes, too!
Some very important actions you can take:
- Read up on the exercises and stretches you can use to not only lose weight, but strengthen the muscles in your abs and lower back and improve flexibility, too.
- Check out my mattress tips, and see if yours might be causing more problems. A new mattress will help take some of the pressure off your joints and spine as you sleep. Plus, studies have shown* that there’s more risk of becoming obese if you’re a short sleeper – so every bit of comfort helps!
- Get moving – even if it means starting small! Low impact aerobic exercises like walking, biking and swimming can help you lose weight while strengthening your core at the same time.An award-winning study presented by the North American Spine Society found that Americans who are extremely obese have a four-fold increased risk of back pain, yet adding just 20 minutes of light exercise each day can lower that risk by a surprising 32 percent!
- Avoid high-impact sports for a while. Football, soccer, basketball – all of these can put stress on the spine with the high-impact movements you need to use. While playing some of these is just fine with low to moderate back pain, you should ask a doctor before participating to make sure you won’t aggravate an injury further.
- Be deliberate about eating well. You can’t lose weight if you’re not burning off more calories than you take in – and the easiest way to do that is to reduce unnecessary calories by eating whole foods and watching your portions. I know it is a serious challenge. But nowadays there are really good online weight loss and fitness programs which help you succeed! Very good and well-known is Jillian Michaels online program. Jillian’s program features online support, recipes, customized exercises, tools, and motivation! And each member gets a customized weight-loss plan based on his or her activity level, body type, and goals. Jillian’s unique triple-threat approach to weight loss — self, science, and sweat — is complete with her famous tough-love and step-by-step advice.
If you’re nervous about exercising or want to be sure you won’t injure yourself further, talk to a medical professional who can build you a customized plan.
“What are the best exercises for overweight people with lower back pain who want to lose weight?”
The best exercises for those who are overweight are low-impact aerobic exercises, including…
- Rowing: Many of my readers write in to tell me how much buying a rowing machine has changed their lives – both for their weight, and their pain!
- Walking/Jogging on an Elliptical Machine: All of the exercise – none of the joint pain! Elliptical machines are ideal for those who are overweight because they virtually eliminate the impact of walking or running, protecting your joints while giving you a workout that’s as intense as you want it to be.
- Swimming/Water Therapy: Anything done in water adds a bit of weight resistance while also protecting your joints, muscles, ligaments and spine from the impact of movement with heavy weight. Whether it’s walking in the pool, doing arm circles or any other number of low-impact exercises, getting into the pool can help you shed pounds and strengthen your back all at once – reducing your pain!
*Girardin JL, Williams NJ, Sarpong D, Pandey A, et al. Associations between inadequate sleep and obesity in the US adult population: analysis of the national health interview survey (1977-2009). BMC Public Health. 2014;14;290.