October 4th, 2018

// The dos and don’ts of exercising for better back health

The dos and don’ts of exercising for better back health
World Spine Day (Oct. 16) a good time to #loveyourspine with the right moves
One in four Canadians suffers from lower back pain on a regular basis and more than four in five have suffered from lower back pain at some stage in their lives.
Most Canadians agree that back pain makes everything in life worse and will eventually stop one from working, from being physically active and will definitely become worse with age.
World Spine Day is October 16 and this year’s theme is #loveyourspine. While doctors used to recommend bed rest for back pain, today they prescribe exercise.

Maureen ‘Mo’ Hagan, a licensed physiotherapist and vice president of program innovation and fitness development with GoodLife Fitness and canfitpro, says back pain can be triggered by general de-conditioning and sedentary habits, poor posture, faulty movement mechanics and carrying excess body weight. But improving movement patterns and strengthening the muscles that support the spine can help address the problem and reduce the suffering associated with back pain.

Hagan suggests two key priorities when exercising to reduce or prevent back pain:
1. Strengthen your core
Your core includes all abdominal muscles (rectus, transverse and obliques), back as well as the shoulders and hip muscles. These muscles have to be strong on their own to contribute to the overall strength and stability of the spine.
The core muscles work together to keep us standing upright and moving (bending forward, side to side, extending and twisting). When your core is weak and out of shape the spine is forced to take on excess load and strain to attempt to support the body on its own. The result is often back pain.
To build strength in your core, start with basic core conditioning exercises including abdominal bracing, plank (aka a hover), spinal balance (all fours with opposing arm, leg lift), modified back extensions, and cat-cow stretching.
2. Reduce spinal compression
The spinal column is composed of 33 individual, interlocking bones called vertebrae. Between each of the vertebrae are spinal disks containing sacks of fluid. When the spaces between each of these interlocking bones are compressed, from too much weight, poor posture or improper movement mechanics, these sacks of fluid flatten, causing pain and discomfort as the bones touch. By taking pressure off of these important tissues, it’s possible to reduce the incidence and severity of back pain.
Some exercises to help decompress the spine include:
  • Child’s pose: This simple yoga pose focuses on elongating the spine. Breathe deeply to enhance the stretch and decompress more effectively. Hold the position for 3-5 deep relaxing breaths or as long as it is comfortable.  Place your arms either alongside your body or forward with your hands positioned under for forehead.
  • Hang from a pull-up bar: Reach up and hang from a pull-up bar (or a solid door frame).  Let go with your feet and allow gravity to lengthen your spine and stretch your spinal muscles. You can also lengthen your spine and create space between the vertebrae by lifting both arms overhead, interlace your fingers and turn the palms upward toward the ceiling. As you inhale slowly press the palms up towards the ceiling allowing both shoulders to lift up toward the ears…pause and exhale.
  • Knee-to-chest stretch: This stretch can be performed in a sitting or lying position (on your back) by drawing one or both knees up towards the chest.  Hold your knee(s) as you breathe deeply to enhance the stretch and decompress the spine and stretch the hips and hamstrings (which may be a contributing factor).
Common mistakes that can aggravate back pain:
  • Improper axial loading. This happens when you perform exercises with improper alignment of the spinal column or with incorrect movement mechanics.  This is common when performing strength training moves such as deadlifts, squats, and lunges with a barbell on your shoulders.
  • Doing sit-ups and crunches just after you wake up. The spinal disks are fully hydrated first thing in the morning and when the trunk flexes (especially with a weight) it can place too heavy a load on the tissues.
  • Lifting with your lower back. It’s important to bend your knees, brace your core and lift your chest, to maintain a long, neutral spine when you lift heavy weights or equipment.
  • Poor posture. A common issue for most exercisers that sit at their desk for work or who drive a lot, as this leads to a bent-over posture, rounded shoulders and upper back, and forward head posture
  • Ignoring the pain. It’s important to modify your exercises and seek help from a professional when you feel ongoing or radiating pain and discomfort
Mo Hagan, and local fitness experts in your area (as well as gym-goers with back pain) are available to talk more about the role exercise can play in managing and preventing back pain, as well as demonstrate the dos and don’ts of exercising to show your spine some love.

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