New decade, new you. Well… kind of.
We all dream of flipping a switch on New Year’s day and starting fresh on a clean slate, but the reality is we have to bring our same body (and ailments!) with us into 2020. And for many of us, this may mean continuing to put up with a bad back. According to this Global Burden of Disease study, back pain is the largest contributor to disability worldwide, with lower back pain (a particularly common issue) thought to affect 540 million people globally at any one time.
Back pain can be caused by a sports-related injury, an accident, or a congenital condition such as scoliosis. But most of the time, it simply develops during the course of day-to-day life. Lifestyle factors such as poor posture, stress, and repetitive activities at work or home, such as sitting at a computer or lifting and carrying, can all lead to muscle tightness, stiffness and backache.
The good news is that, while there’s no magic New Year’s wand to wave, there are a few simple things you can do to help make 2020 (and beyond) better for your back**.
While our ancestors may have been out working in the fields, hunting and gathering, most of us modern folk spend a whole lot of time sitting down. From your morning commute to desk work, meetings, dinner dates, and reclining in front of Netflix — it’s incredible to think about how much time we actually spend in a seated position. And all this sitting can be really bad for our backs and health generally. Live a life less sedentary by making an effort to get up and about whenever you can throughout the day. Researchers agree that one of the most important things that people with back pain can do is to stay as physically active as possible in daily life and exercise regularly. Make a point to leave your desk at lunchtime and get outside for a walk, or get off the train a station early on your way home. The key here is more about doing it regularly, not so much about how long or how hard you exercise.
It seems obvious, but many of us forget the simple relief that comes from giving those stiff back muscles a gentle stretch. It doesn’t just feel good – by regularly stretching your back you can reduce the risk of injury, improve your range of motion, prevent joint stiffness and enable your back muscles to work more effectively. All this combines to improve back pain.
Here are four essential stretches to support better back health:
Partial Crunch/Pelvic Tilt
The pelvic tilt is generally the first exercise recommended for recovering from back pain and helping to develop spinal stabilisation.
- Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- As you exhale, contract your abdominal muscles and flatten the small arch of your back, pressing it into the floor.
- Lift your head and shoulders slightly up off the floor as you reach toward your feet with your fingertips.
- Hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Relax and return to the starting position.
- Repeat 5 to 10 times.
This simple manoeuver gently stretches the lower back muscles and helps realign the spine and pelvis.
- Begin on your hands and knees.
- Contract your abdominal muscles to pull your belly button up towards your spine, and slowly round your back, arching toward the ceiling
- Allow your head to drop forward and curl your pelvis under.
- Hold for 10 seconds before returning to the starting position.
- Then, begin to stretch in the opposite direction by raising your head up and directing your eyes look towards the ceiling.
- Let your pelvis tilt forward, scooping through your lower back as your belly reaches down toward the floor.
- Hold the position for 10 seconds, then return to the starting position.
- Repeat both stretches about 5 to 10 times.
Child’s Pose, supported
A supported Child’s Pose gives a gentle stretch to the lower back, hips, thighs and ankles, and improves circulation to the spinal joints.
- Kneel on the floor and stack one or two bolsters (or thick cushions) in front of you, between your knees.
- Bring your feet in toward each other, and sit your hips back towards your heels as you lean forward, resting your torso and one cheek on the bolsters (with head turned to the side). You can also place a blanket under your knees and a rolled blanket behind your knees for added comfort if you need.
- Relax in the pose for 5 to 10 minutes.
This backward bend encourages the release of the chest, shoulders, and hips while strengthening the backside of the body.
- Lay on your back on the floor, with your knees bent and heels pulled in close to the hips.
- Using your glute muscles, slowly lift your hips off the ground, keeping your pelvis straight and drawing your tailbone slightly toward your knees.
- Walk your shoulders underneath the body to reach your pelvis higher. Your hands can be clasped under your back, or pressing into the floor by your side.
- Hold for five slow breaths.
The way you hold your body while standing, sitting and moving about your day might be impacting your health more than you realise. If your posture is good, the bones of the spine are correctly aligned. And if not… well, say hello to aching muscles, stiffness, and (in some cases) injury. Improving your posture will take a little effort initially, but once the good habits are in place, it will become subconscious effort like breathing. Here are a few easy exercises that can help — aim to practice these throughout the day, and before you know it, good posture will be second nature.
When standing, imagine that a strong cord is attached to the top of your head pulling you upward and making you taller. Your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should be even and line up vertically. Try to keep your balance centred and your pelvis level — don’t allow the lower back to sway. Imagine stretching your head toward the ceiling, lengthening your neck (keep those shoulders back and down!) and increasing the space between your rib cage and pelvis. Picture yourself as a tall, elegant ballerina rather than a soldier stiffly at attention.
Stand facing a corner with your arms raised, hands flat against the walls, elbows at shoulder height. Place one foot ahead of the other. Bending your forward knee, exhale as you lean your body toward the corner. Keep your back straight and your chest and head up. You should feel a nice stretch across your chest. Hold this position for 20–30 seconds.
Shoulder blade squeeze
Sit up straight in a chair with your hands resting on your thighs. Keep your shoulders down, and your chin level. Slowly draw your shoulders back and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for a count of five, then relax. Repeat three or four times
Raise your right arm to shoulder level in front of you and bend the arm at the elbow, keeping the forearm parallel to the floor. Grasp the right elbow with your left hand and gently pull it across your chest so that you feel a stretch in the upper arm and shoulder on the right side. Hold for 20 seconds; relax both arms. Repeat to the other side. Repeat three times on each side.
**A word of caution:
As with any sort of pain, it is crucial to figure out the source so you can properly treat it. If you have back pain that feels sharp or sudden, or if the pain extends beyond your low back, or is accompanied by symptoms like abdominal pain and nausea, you should consult a doctor. Similarly, if you have a history of lower back injury or disc problems, always see your doctor before trying any new exercise.