We've Got Your Back

There’s a better answer to avoiding back problems or alleviating your pain than
popping anti-inflammatories every day. It all boils down to stretching and strengthening
your spine and back muscles. Here, ET offers some basic exercises that might help
you prevent trips to the doctor and the MRI machine.

By Stephen Hanks

January 2007

It’s hard to believe that the most debilitating and excruciating pain that affects many Americans comes from activities that don’t require a lot of exertion. Sure it’s possible to suffer neck, spine and back problems from a trauma like an accident while driving or getting injured on a playing field. But most people can attribute back pain to poor posture and sleep habits, prolonged positioning in front of a computer screen or behind the wheel of a car, everyday stress and good old wear and tear due to age (otherwise known as arthritis or degenerative joint disease). For women over 50, some back problems are related to osteoporosis (the deterioration of bones in the spine, hip and other areas).

Back pain has become one of America’s most serious health problems. According to a 2005 report from the North American Spine Society (NASS, www.spine.org), one out of every 14 people sought medical care for back or neck pain (that’s 14 million visits per year), and back pain was the second most common reason people visited a physician. The social and economic cost is like a stab in the back, as the combination of back and neck pain result in more lost workdays than any other condition. Absenteeism and medical expenses due to back injury exceeds $80 billion each year.

If that isn’t depressing enough, the future picture will definitely get your back up. The NASS projects that 80% of people over age 30 will experience back problems at some point in their lives and that 30% of those folks will have recurring problems.

But suffering from back pain doesn’t have to be inevitable for everyone. While the treatments for back problems range from ice and rest for mild pain to surgery for severe and chronic conditions, there is a way you can prevent back pain or at least stave it off for as long into your old age as possible—exercise! Here’s seven basic exercises that can stretch and strengthen those muscles. With a little effort you can keep your back fit and strong.

BACK ARCH

This exercise combines two basic back stretches—the all-fours arch and the all-fours tilt (aptly named because you’re starting the exercise on “all fours”). A: Start with your hands and knees on the floor and your upper body parallel with the floor; shoulders over your hands and hips aligned with your knees. B: Tilt your pelvis as if you’re pushing your tummy to the floor and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. C: Then push your lower back toward the ceiling. Be careful not to jerk your head and neck up and down or it will strain your spine. Repeat 10 to 15 times.

UPPER TRUNK RAISE

This exercise not only stretches the back muscles, it strengthens your core muscle area as well. Lie face down on the floor with your arms at your sides and inhale. As you exhale, slowly lift your head, shoulders and upper chest as far as you can until either you feel uncomfortable or you would exceed the normal standing curvature of your back. Keep head straight. Hold position for 5 to 10 seconds, repeat 5 to 10 times.

LOWER TRUNK  ROTATION

Start out flat on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor A: Extend your arms out to the side. Slowly bring your knees toward your chest so they are in line with your hips. B: Rotate your knees to one side as far as you can and hold for 5 seconds. Bring both knees up to the starting position then rotate to the other side as far as possible. Hold again for 5 seconds. Remember: do not twist your upper body along with your legs. Keep you shoulders flat on the floor during the exercise. Repeat this at least 5 to 10 times.

By the way, a variation of this exercise is called the lumbar rotation (because it stretches the lower back and hips). Start out the same as with the lower trunk rotation, only with both legs extended on the floor as if your body was forming a T. Then raise one leg and cross it over your body, trying to touch your knee to the floor on the opposite side (shoulders flat on the floor). Hold for 10 seconds then repeat with the other leg. Do 5 to 10 repetitions with each leg.

WALL SLIDE

This may seem like a simple deep knee bend, but it’s an excellent core-training workout that not only strengthens your back but also works your abdominal, hamstring and quadricep muscles. You can do it flush against the wall, but the stability ball pressed between the wall and your lower back reduces the stress on that area. A: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with your heels about a foot from the wall. B: Slowly bend your knees until your hamstrings and backside are almost parallel to the floor (close to a 90° angle). Tighten your lower abdominals and hold the position for about 15 seconds. Then slowly return to the start and repeat 10 times. You can also increase the time you hold the bent-knee position and reduce the number of repetitions.

BACK EXTENSION

This is a great lower back exercise you can do with a stability ball. A: Lie on top of the ball with your feet braced against a wall for support (you can also do this routine with your feet on the floor). With your hands behind your ears, place your torso over the peak of the ball. B: Slowly raise your torso off the ball, lengthening your spine as you go, until your body is in a straight line. Try to keep your butt muscles contracted to protect your lower back. Return to the starting position and repeat 10 times. You should try to do three sets of this exercise but alternate each set with a different routine (such as the wall slide).

BENT OVER ROW

Here’s an exercise that employs free weights; it not only works your middle and upper back but also helps to tone your upper arms and biceps. A: With a five- or 10-pound dumbbell (depending on your comfort level; don’t try to lift anything too heavy) lean over a bench with one arm and the corresponding side leg placed on the bench. The other leg is slightly bent and supporting you on the floor. B: Slowly raise the dumbbell until it is close to your body, hold for a couple of seconds, then slowly lower to the starting position without locking your elbows. Do 10 to 15 reps, alternating the exercise with another routine (like the front pulldown).

FRONT PULLDOWN

Bending and stretching isn’t enough to keep your back muscles strong—you also have to hit the weights. A: At the trapezius pull-down machine, place your hands on the grip bar about a shoulder-width apart. Position yourself so that your thighs are under the leg pads and keep your feet on the floor. B: With your back straight or very slightly arched, as you exhale pull the bar down to your upper chest. During the pull-down motion, make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together and bring your elbows tight to your sides. Pause for a second or two and slowly let the bar up, but don’t lock your elbows on the return. When you can do 15 reps easily, it’s time to increase the amount of weight.

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