Back Up! Guide to a Healthy Back
Adapted from The Anytime, Anywhere Exercise Book
Lose Three to Five Pounds Instantly!
Now that I've got your attention, here's a way to look like you lost that weight. First, imagine that you're holding a large, heavy brick on your head. Let yourself slump from the weight of the brick and look at your side view in a full-length mirror. (Not your best look, is it?) Now face front and imagine that you're lifting that brick by pushing it up with your head. Lift, lift, lift--ah, the brick disintegrates. Hold that pose, breathe in that position, and let your shoulders relax. Now sneak a peek at the mirror. Notice how your upright posture makes you look slimmer, firmer, even younger and more confident?
What you actually did was pull in your abdominal muscles and lift your chest. This helped you adjust your spine so that your back is neither arched nor rounded--what we'll call a "neutral back." Try doing this "lift the brick" exercise several times a day until it becomes your natural posture. Besides looking better, you'll strengthen your back and abdominals!
Besides the immediate benefits of looking leaner, younger, and stronger by making good posture a habit, you'll be more likely to avoid back pain by learning to treat your back right. Eighty-five percent of us will experience severe back pain sometime in our lives. On any given day, nearly 7 million Americans are under some form of treatment for lower-back pain. Most back injuries are caused not by a sudden trauma, but by repetitive stress to the back, either through simple actions done over and over again, or by poor body alignment. Because this kind of back injury is so simple to prevent, it's worth learning the basics, which are easy to grasp and put into action.
In addition, an awareness of correct back alignment is vital for safe strength training, aerobic exercise of all kinds, and day-to-day energy and comfort.
Back, Neck, and Shoulder Alignment
Does your head, back, neck, or shoulders ache by the end of the day? Our modern-day, fast-paced life, with all its timesaving technology, stresses our bodies as much as our minds. We sit hunched forward over keyboards, chin jutting toward our computer screen and shoulder holding the telephone to our ear. We slump for an hour or more waiting in rush hour traffic only to arrive at our offices, where we slump for another eight hours. We lean forward to pick up boxes, babies, files, vacuum cleaners, and dishes. Is it any wonder our backs (led by our jutting chins and necks) get misaligned, weak, and painful?
Is the answer to "sit up straight!" as our mothers told us? Almost. Have you ever seen a model or illustration of a spine in a doctor's office or an anatomy book? Your back isn't designed to be "straight" exactly, because there's a natural curve to the lower back. So your back's favorite position isn't an exaggerated straight position with your pelvis tucked under, but "neutral," in its natural, best alignment.
One way to find your neutral spine is to stand with your hands on your hips, with a side view to the mirror. Look front (not at the mirror) and rock your pelvis forward as far as it will go, then back as far as it will go. Do this a few times very slowly, being aware that at either extreme, your back doesn't feel right. Now bring your pelvis halfway between the two extremes--you'll feel when you're there. Hold that pose and sneak a peek at the mirror. Your back should be neutral.
Is this the way you carry yourself usually? Probably not. But if you're willing to make this alignment a habit, you'll be rewarded by back comfort and abdominal strength.
Practice the "lift the brick" trick often, until it becomes second nature to lift your chest and pull in your abdominals. Another way to visualize this is to imagine you are a marionette with a string attached to the top of your head, another attached to your chest, and--very important--no strings attached to your shoulders. Your puppeteer lifts your head and chest strings; your shoulders just hang down, relaxed.
Notice that when your back alignment is right, your head, shoulders, and hips are all in line. If you were wearing very long earrings, they would brush your shoulders, not dangle forward. You want to avoid letting your head jut forward, which is a frequent, underlying cause of neck pain.
Get your shoulders out of a hunched position by rolling them up, back, and down. Then leave them down. Here's another way to align your shoulders: Bring your elbows into your waist, arms bent, thumbs up. Leaving your elbows touching your waist, rotate your arms out and back. Your shoulders will rotate back to allow the movement. When you reach a natural stopping point, relax your arms, leaving your shoulders where they are. Your shoulders are now in their preferred alignment.
Treat Your Back Right
Your back will be less prone to injury and discomfort if you learn its likes and dislikes. The back doesn't like:
- Slumping. Instead, keep "lifting the brick."
- Tension. When you're feeling stressed, do aerobic or stretching exercises to relax the tightness. A yoga or tai chi class will help combat habitual stress.
- Leaning forward unsupported from the hips or waist, your lower back pulling your body weight, especially with knees locked. This can put five times as much pressure on the lower back as bending over with knees bent, using your thighs.
- Doing two actions at once, such as bending and twisting, twisting and reaching, or bending and lifting. If you find that you're stressing your back on the job, rearrange your work setup so that you're facing any object you need to lift or reach. Don't bend over with straight legs and pick up an object, because this stresses your lower back. Instead, use the strength of your thighs. Squat down, legs wide, and pull the object close to you. Holding the object against your body, straighten your legs.
The back does like:
- Variety of movement. Exercise keeps the back strong and vigorous. Research at the New York University Medical School and other centers suggests that more than 80 percent of all lower-back pain may be due to lack of exercise.
- Stretching. Relax your back and keep it limber by stretching after exercise and whenever you feel tense.
- Strong abdominals. An effective abdominal-strengthening program is one of the best ways to prevent and treat back problems. Strengthen your abdominals with curl-ups and other ab exercises, and pull in your abdominal muscles as part of your normal posture.
- Neutral spine, described earlier. As a reminder, adjust your car's rearview mirror so that you can't use it if you slump.
You can see that an appropriate exercise program will strengthen your back, and a strong back will make your exercise program more effective. My favorite aerobic exercise, a form of aerobic dance called LI Teknique (LI is a Chinese character meaning physical strength), is specifically designed to protect and strengthen the back, teach body alignment, burn fat aerobically, condition the heart and lungs, strengthen and tone the thighs and buttocks, and work the abdominals the whole time! It has been endorsed by chiropractors and physical therapists--and one spine surgeon gives my LI Teknique videotape to his recovering patients.
Back at Your Desk
If you have a desk job, take plenty of breaks. Ideally, stretch or do another type of exercise for a few minutes each hour. If this is impossible, at least get up and walk around for a couple of minutes and change tasks frequently. Keep a container of drinking water at your desk and sip it frequently. The increased need to use the bathroom will remind you to get up and leave your desk!
Set up your work station so that it promotes good posture. Your chair should be comfortable and support your lower back. Ideally, it should also have arm support. Adjust your chair height so you can sit with your feet flat on the floor (or on a box or platform, if necessary), thighs approximately parallel to the floor. Your knees should be slightly above hip level, your work at about elbow height, and your line of vision slightly above the middle of the computer screen.
Keep items you use frequently within easy reach without needing to twist your body. When you need to reach something that's not directly in front of you, turn your whole body in that direction or get up and move toward the object.
And whatever you're doing--whether you're sitting, standing, lifting, walking, driving, even reading--don't forget to "lift the brick!"