Too much too soon? Pacing your activities

Having back pain may limit your activities but it doesn’t mean you have to be a couch potato. On the contrary, back specialists recommend doing as much physical activity as your pain allows. Too little activity weakens the muscles and reduces flexibility. Even walking a few feet or a few blocks, if that is all you can do, is beneficial.

But it’s important to take care not to hurt your back. After an injury, the back is more easily strained by demanding activity. While most healing takes place ten days to two weeks after an injury, it can take weeks or months for an injury to fully heal, and for pain to subside.

As you recover from back pain, don’t resume your usual activities before you are ready. If you’ve had any type of treatment for your back, consult your healthcare professional before increasing your activity level.

There are different kinds of pain

It helps to understand the difference between different kinds of pain. Whenever you become more active or start a new exercise program, it is normal to feel temporary soreness or fatigue for a day or two. This is healthy and expectable and should pass quickly. But when you push your muscles too hard, you can experience pain that is not healthy –pain that begins after an activity, gets worse approximately two days later, and feels like “your” pain. Muscles may be very sore or swell. If this happens, rest, use self-care, or see your doctor if the pain interferes with everyday activities. It does not mean that you will never be able to do this activity, but you may need to do it with less intensity, or for a shorter period of time.

If you have chronic pain be alert for signs of a different type of pain, which could indicate a new back problem. Pay attention to when pain happens and consider what you were doing at the time. Were you sitting too much? Did you overexert yourself? Even ordinary activities, such as cooking, playing with children or standing for long periods, can be hard on the body.

Take caution if an activity causes your symptoms to flare up again. If the pain lingers, don’t attempt that activity for a while.

Pacing yourself tips

The following tips will help you to perform everyday activities and exercise safely to minimize the possibility of pain and injury:

  • Warm up–tight muscles are prone to injury. Stretching muscles before performing any exercise or demanding activity, such as housecleaning or driving long distance, increases flexibility and helps prevent injury.

  • Start slow–perform activities at a slower pace, for a shorter period of time. Take a short walk, clean one room, or mow half the lawn. Do only as much activity as is comfortable for you.

  • Follow an exercise plan–plan what you want to do, but don’t hesitate to stop if you need a break or feel you have done enough. An exercise session could start with a warm up, five to ten minutes of exercise, then a cool down.

  • Listen to your body–pay attention to which activities feel good and which are uncomfortable.

  • Stop if you feel pain–don’t continue an activity that causes significant pain. Moving through the pain will only bring on more pain and prolong the healing process.

  • Start slow with a new activity – then increase time or intensity slowly, only 10% to 20% at a time.

  • Take breaks at planned times –don’t wait for pain to tell you when to take a break.

  • Use proper technique and posture– Good posture takes stress off your back.

  • Prepare for activities–before performing a demanding activity, such as lifting a large object or mowing the lawn, plan how to do it to avoid back strain. Turn a lawn mower slowly when changing direction. To lift a large or heavy object, use proper form: keep your upper body straight, keep your head aligned with your back and squat down. Avoid bending forward. Hold the object close to your body and don’t twist when lifting.

  • Practice relaxation techniques–pain causes muscles to tighten, particularly at the site of the injury, which can create new pain. Practicing deep breathing, yoga, meditation and other relaxation techniques eases muscle tension.

  • Slow down and breathe–when you move at a hectic pace, your breathing becomes shallow and can make you feel more tired and anxious. Breathing in and out and expanding the lower rib cage to the count of five, increases oxygen intake and will lower blood pressure and boost energy.


If you learn to pace yourself, exercise can be your friend, not your foe. Physical activity is good for your body and your mind if you know how to do it the smart way.


Caudill, M.A. (2002). Managing pain before it manages you (Revised Version). New York: The Gilford Press.

Moore, J, Lorig, K, et. al. (1999). The Back Pain Helpbook. New York: Perseus Books.

Sinel, M.S., & Deardorff, W.W. (1999). Back Pain Remedies for Dummies. New York: Wiley Publishing.