We don’t think very much
about our backs—that is, until they start to hurt. And many of us are
hurting as back pain is now one of the most common medical complaints
in the U.S. The good news is that, in many cases, back pain can be
prevented. Here are the American Council on Exercise’s Top 10 ways to
maintain a healthy back.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Excess
weight tends to creep up slowly, so we may not be aware of how it
affects us. But try carrying a 20-pound pack on your back all day and
you’ll have a better idea of how extra weight takes a toll on the
- Strengthen the abdominal and back
muscles. You’ve heard it before, but strengthening the abdominals
really does help protect the back. In fact, a strong core—which
includes all the muscles of the trunk—is important for avoiding
injury, whether you’re cleaning your house, playing tennis or sitting
at a desk all day.
- Lift items properly. Protect your
back when lifting anything by standing close to the object with your
feet apart to give you a stable base. Squat down while keeping the
spine in proper alignment and contract your abdominals as you lift
using your legs.
- Strengthen the leg muscles. Along
with the core muscles, the leg muscles play a vital role in helping
you maintain good posture and body mechanics. And strong leg muscles
can take much of the burden off the back when you’re lifting heavy
items (see above).
- Stay flexible. Flexibility in the
hamstrings, hip flexors and muscles attached to the pelvis relieves
stress on the lumbar spine which in turn reduces the risk of low-back
pain. Inflexibility in the
form of tight hamstrings and a limited range of motion in the trunk
can increase your risk of injury or make existing back pain worse.
Some forms of exercise, such as yoga, Pilates and tai chi, may help
relieve or prevent back pain by increasing flexibility and reducing
tension. These exercises should not be done, however, if they are
uncomfortable or place a strain on the back.
- Maintain good posture. Correct
posture and body mechanics play a vital role in preventing back pain
because pressure on the discs and strain of the muscles, ligaments and
back joints is aggravated by incorrect posture and body mechanics.
When your posture is good and you move your body correctly, you reduce
the strain on your back.
- Buy a comfortable mattress. Most of
us spend a good deal of time in bed, which is why a good mattress is
such a wise investment. Do some research, test the mattress out at the
store and ask for recommendations. Remember—what works for one person
may not work for you so take the time to find the mattress that suits
- Reduce stress. Stress increases
tension in all your muscles including your back. Reduce or better
manage your stress and you may literally feel as if the weight has
been lifted from your shoulders.
- Warm up before activity. Beginning
any activity with cold muscles and joints puts you at risk for injury.
Jumping right into intense activity increases your risk of injury, so
take the time to get your muscles and joints warm and limber first.
- Support the lower back when sitting.
Use a rolled towel, small pillow or specially designed seat support
available at medical supply stores. Remove the support every half hour
for five minutes to give your lower back a change of position. After
sitting for a prolonged period, straighten your back to an upright
position and, if possible, stand and walk around to give your back a
Exercise Helps Take Away the Pain
Not only does exercise help reduce the
risk of developing numerous diseases, it may also be effective in
reducing the perception of pain, even among those with chronic pain in
the lower back.
Researchers at the VA Medical Center in
Milwaukee, Wis., recruited 10 healthy people and eight people with
chronic lower-back pain.
During a 25-minute ride on an exercise
bike, both groups showed marked reductions in pain perception, which
lasted for about 30 minutes after the session.
Lead researcher Dr. Martin Hoffman
suggests that as long as the exercise does not exacerbate the injury, it
could be an effective means of alleviating pain.
It is significant that the eight
individuals with back pain were sedentary prior to participation in this
study because inactivity has been shown to contribute to muscular back
In a related study, Hoffman and his
associates concluded that exercise intensities from 50 to 75 percent (at
the lower end of the heart rate training zone) were necessary to induce
a temporary reduction in pain perception.