Background Physical occupational exposure is a risk factor for low back pain in workers but the long term effects of exposure remain unclear. As several countries consider increasing the retirement age, further information on this topic is relevant. This study aimed to describe the prevalence of low back pain among middle aged and aging individuals in the general French population according to physical occupational exposure and retirement status. Methods The study population originated from the French national survey 'Enquête décennale santé 2002'. Low back pain for more than 30 days within the previous twelve months (LBP) was assessed using a French version of the Nordic questionnaire. Occupational exposure was self assessed. Subjects were classified as "exposed" if they were currently or had previously been exposed to handling of heavy loads and/or to tiring postures. The weighted prevalence of LBP was computed separately for men and women, for active (aged 45-59) and retiree (aged 55-74), according to 5-year age group and past/present occupational exposure. Results For active men, the prevalence of LBP was significantly higher in those currently or previously exposed (n = 1051) compared with those never exposed (n = 1183), respectively over 20% versus less than 11%. Among retired men, the prevalence of LBP tended towards equivalence with increasing age among those previously exposed (n = 748) and those unexposed (n = 599). Patterns were quite similar for women with a higher prevalence in exposed active women (n = 741) compared to unexposed (n = 1260): around 25% versus 15%. Similarly, differences between previously exposed (n = 430) and unexposed (n = 489) retired women tended to reduce with age. Conclusion The prevalence of LBP in active workers was associated with occupational exposure. The link with past exposure among retirees decreased with age. These results should be considered for policies dealing with prevention at the workplace and retirement.