Pilates vs. Cycling for Back Pain

Health professionals often tout the benefits of exercise for preventing back pain, but should they recommend one form of exercise over another? Will core-stabilizing exercise enhance recovery more than running? Or is any type of physical activity good enough?

In a new study from the University of Western Sydney, researchers compared the effects of Pilates and stationary cycling on back-pain treatment. Sixty four people with chronic low-back pain were randomly assigned to participate in a Pilates program or stationary cycling regime. After eight weeks, both groups showed significant improvements but the Pilates group had greater reductions in pain and disability. However these differences diminished after six months when the stationary cycling group caught up to the Pilates group in terms of decreased disability and pain.

Both groups also had similar reductions in pain catastrophizing and improvements in muscle control. Despite that the cyclists did not perform specific movements to target trunk muscles, they had the same improvements in trunk muscle activity. These changes suggest that cycling and Pilates restore muscle coordination to decrease disability.

It's possible that both cycling and Pilates produced beneficial results since both strengthen and tone core muscles. A recent study found that core-stabilization exercises are more effective for reducing back pain and disability than general aerobic exercise.

These results could look different for other musculoskeletal conditions however. In a recent study comparing exercises for neck pain, yoga was substantially better for boosting mobility and decreasing pain; and in another study, resistance training beat tai chi for knee osteoarthritis.

Although scientists are still studying which exercise is more effective than the next, a new study showed that any increase in physical activity can enhance recovery from back pain.


Brooks C, Kennedy S, Marshall PW. Specific trunk and general exercise elicit similar changes in anticipatory postural adjustments in patients with chronic low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. Spine 2012;37(25):E1543-50. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e31826feac0.

Marshall PW, Kennedy S, Brooks C, Lonsdale C. Pilates exercise or stationary cycling for non-specific low back pain: Does it matter? A randomized controlled trial with 6-month follow-up. Spine 2013; [ E-pub ahead of print].