Exercises for a Healthy Back and Spine

Most of us no longer need to be convinced of the value of regular exercise in staying healthy. We run or walk or jog to strengthen our legs, we do sit-ups or crunch-ups to strengthen our stomach muscles, and we lift weights or do chin-ups and push-ups to strengthen our arms. After we exercise we weigh ourselves and look these parts of our bodies, and judge the effectiveness of our exercise programs based on that. But what about our backs? We can’t really see our backs in the mirror. Few of us give any thought to exercises for the back.

Why exercises for the back are important

Our backs provide the support for the rest of our body. The spine supports the rest of the skeletal system, and the ligaments and muscles that support the spine connect it to the rest of the body. The spine itself surrounds the spinal cord, the primary conduit for our central nervous system, which controls most of our bodily functions. Problems in the back – ranging from strained muscles and damaged ligaments to displaced vertebrae and misaligned joints – can cause a number of health problems. The most common is back pain.

How common? 80 to 90 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. For over 10 percent of them, this pain becomes chronic. Back pain is the second most common reason (after respiratory problems like the common cold or flu) for seeing a doctor. So if there are exercises or stretches we can add to our regular exercise regimen that can prevent back injuries and pain, it would be in our interest to do so.

What types of exercises help to keep your back healthy?

Exercise can generally be divided into three basic types. Aerobic exercise provides cardiovascular conditioning by raising the metabolism and strengthening the heart and lungs. Strengthening exercises increase muscle tone build new muscle tissue. Stretching exercises involve slow, sustained lengthening of muscle tissues to reduce tension and improve flexibility. All three have their place in an exercise program aimed at keeping our backs healthy.

This article is of necessity too short to go into any depth into the range of exercises for back health, and will instead focus on providing a few short examples of back exercises and stretches. As with any exercise program, keep a few simple rules in mind. First, check with your doctor or chiropractor if you are already experiencing back pain. Also, always warm up before exercising performing all exercises and stretches slowly and comfortably, without bouncing or straining. Exercise both sides of your body equally, and remember to breathe normally.

• Aerobic. Walking, running, cycling, skating, rowing, and swimming are all aerobic exercises that strengthen the back and keep it healthy. Jumping rope is not recommended because it puts a lot of pressure on the vertebral discs.

• Strengthening. While standing, hold on to a chair or a doorway for support and extend each leg forward, back, and to the side. Repeat five times for each leg.

• Strengthening. Lying on your stomach, rest your upper body on your forearms. Keeping your back and legs straight, raise your buttocks and hold this position for one minute.

• Strengthening. Lying on your back with your knees bent and keeping your back straight, raise your upper body until your shoulder blades lift off of the floor. Hold for a few seconds, and repeat 5-10 times.

• Strengthening. Lying on your back, raise your upper body and reach with your hands towards your opposite hip. Hold for a few seconds and repeat 5 times. Remember to do this on both sides of the body.

• Strengthening. Lying on your stomach, tighten your buttocks muscles and lift your head and shoulders one or two inches off the floor. Hold for a few seconds and repeat 5 times.

• Stretching. Lie on your back and use your hands to pull your knees gently towards your chest, and hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat 5 times.

• Stretching. Often called the “cat stretch,” this stretch is performed while kneeling on the floor or an exercise mat. Gently arch your back upwards, and at the same time tightening your stomach muscles. Repeat as often as is comfortable.

• Stretching. Standing while holding on to a chair or a doorway for support, lift one leg behind you. Grasp your foot with one hand and pull it towards your buttocks until you feel a stretch in the front of the thighs. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat several times, alternating legs.

• Stretching. Standing, raise your arms in front of you and lace your fingers together. Then rotate your hands so that your palms are facing away from your body, and push out gently. Repeat several times, holding for 30 seconds.

These are just a few simple exercises to get you started. Ask your doctor or chiropractor for others that might be beneficial for the back, and add them to your exercise routine as you see fit.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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