We Need Our Backs and We Need Them To Be Strong




Back problems and exercise are a Catch-22. The more fit person is less likely to have back pain than sedentary, overweight individuals. Yet for many beginners at health and fitness, a too-vigorous or ill-advised start can often result in new or worse back problems – something that more often than not derails the exercise program altogether.
The problem can begin with too much enthusiasm. As is often the case when someone decides to “get in better shape” – if it’s to counter-balance hair loss, or answer doctor’s orders regarding a negative health diagnosis – the individual goes all-out. Men in particular will attack weight reduction from the gym, women more so in the kitchen (dieting), so this is a phenomenon that tends to happen more with the guys. Still, women get their share of problems.

Common causes of back pain

First, a list of the most common causes of back pain that can be both caused and treated by fitness activities.

  • Herniated disc: Improper lifting with the back, beyond its current ability, can cause compression of spinal nerves. The pain often radiates to points away from the back, such as with leg sciatica.
  • Muscle strain: Quick, unusual movements of force or twisting can tear the back muscles (which generally heal with time if re-injury is avoided).
  • Ligament sprain: This semi-hard connective tissue can cause pain when stretched too far too quickly (it’s where yoga can cause injury if not approached sensibly and incrementally).

There are other causes of lower back pain that are more chronic and which require special medical attention. These include spinal stenosis, related to thickened ligaments in the spine that cause constriction, as well osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. Healthy lifestyles – regular, smart exercise and weight management – can forestall onset of each of these (with the exception of fibromyalgia).

Stretching – all day long

Obesity and simply being out of shape are the most common roots of back pain. If the body itself is heavy, and muscles are not up to the job of helping the individual to move in space, it’s easy to see how injury can take place. To it make less likely that a fitness program will trigger back pain, there are two proactive steps to take: keep the body flexible, and develop core (abdominal, side and lower back) strength. While stretching itself creates some level of strength, a future article will explore exercises designed to take that strength to a higher level.
Stretching to achieve flexibility is one of those things everyone hears they should do but few heed the call. And, there is a perplexing (and in my opinion, worthless) debate on when one should stretch: before, during or after a workout? Look at cats and dogs: they’re always stretching. Even if your life is sedentary – as with household pets in small apartments – you may instinctively stretch when yawning or doing other simple movements. Stretching is a way to elongate muscles, tendons and ligaments, and to open up spaces in joints to allow blood flow and nutrients to get into those joints. Net result: flexibility that enables a greater range of motion and proper circulation in joint areas. I say stretch every day, all day, and more so when you are actively exercising.

Some terrific stretches most effective at creating back flexibility are:

Cobra position. This borrows from yoga practice. Lie face down on the floor, then with hands positioned approximately at the armpits, press down so that the shoulders rise up even while you press the hipbones toward the floor. For variety, point and press one shoulder forward, then the other, for a different stretch in the hip region.
Table positions. With knees and hands on floor, face down, form a tabletop with your back. Curve the spine so that your back dips to a U-shape. Next, hump the back in the “scaredy cat” pose. Hold both positions for 10 seconds and cycle through both, four or five times.
Knee fold-overs. Lie face up flat on the floor and pull the knees to the chest. Gently roll back and forth on the lower back in that position to massage the area and to stretch it out (gently). Next, extend the left leg straight out and rest it on the floor, then use the left hand to pull the right knee (still contracted) over the left leg and toward the floor on your left. Hold that position for 10 or 20 seconds, pressing the knee ever closer to the floor as you simultaneously pull your left shoulder back toward the floor. Release and repeat on the other leg.
Standing waist folds. With legs straight and feet on the floor, knees locked out, fold from the waist to hang your shoulders and head near or approaching your knees and arms, relaxed, drooping to the floor. Think “muscles relaxed” as you do this. To advance this, clasp the hands behind the lower back and lift/press them up, which deepens the stretch. Hold for sustained periods of time: 30, 60, 90 or 120 seconds.
Some rules of thumb for all stretching: push or pull into a stretch, but don’t bounce. Bouncing strains the target muscles, tendons and ligaments too abruptly. Instead, push the stretch gradually to a point of slight discomfort then hold it for a sustained period (10 seconds or more), inhale, then push it a tad bit further on the exhale. And of course, seek proper medical attention if you have chronic pain that does not subside.
Note that none of these exercises require special equipment, and most can be done in street attire in a small space – even an office cubicle. Try one or two a day and notice the difference in a few weeks.