Build a strong back now and for the future

Jennifer E. Engen

Lower back pain is a major cause of disability and loss of productivity — and it can make getting down on the floor and back up again, our focus this month, unappealing at best, and impossible at worst. As we get older, years of hard work, degenerative disk disease, and poor posture all can contribute to back pain and the temptation to give up on exercise.

But often exercise is the best medicine.

» READ MORE: Getting on the floor — and back up — the right way.

One of the best ways to alleviate lower back pain is by strengthening the muscles — specifically, by targeting your abdominals, lower back, and other core muscles to improve the pain for a longer time. Your core is the center of your body — and when it’s weak, other muscle groups overcompensate to help support your spine. And that causes even more pain.

» READ MORE: How to help yourself after a fall.

More good news: You can start strengthening your back with a few simple habits practiced throughout your day in addition to exercise.

  • Relaxing the shoulders, rather than hunching them up around the ears.

  • Keeping your back against the chair, or using a backrest or cushion to help your back comfortably meet the chair, especially in the lower back region.

  • Avoiding sitting for long periods at a time, ideally taking at least a 10-minute break for every hour of sitting.

  • Sitting up straight and looking directly forward when reading mobile screens or monitors.

  • Lifting heavy objects by bending the legs rather than using the back.

  • Keeping heavy loads close to the body when lifting or carrying them.

  • Walking with a straight spine and trying to avoid slumping or leaning.

This move works the transversus abdominis, the muscle that stabilizes the spine and lower back region.

  • Sit with your back pressed into the back of the chair, knees bent and feet flat, keeping the arms by the sides.

  • Breathe in deeply, allowing lungs to expand fully.

  • While exhaling, pull the belly button toward the spine, tightening the abdominal muscles and keeping the hips still.

  • Repeat five times. Make this move a habit through your day.

This move helps lengthen and strengthen the back while easing muscle tension in the low back.

  • Get on your hands and knees with the knees hip-width apart.

  • Arch the back, pulling the belly button up toward the spine.

  • Slowly relax the muscles and allow the abdomen to sag toward the floor. Stick your chin out and your tailbone up.

  • Return to the starting position.

  • If your knees are painful, sit on the floor or at the edge of a chair. With your feet hip width apart, hands under your outer thighs, perform the same movements described above

  • Repeat three to five times twice a day.

This stretch helps relieve tension in the lower back while gently working the core muscles to improve stability.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, arms on the floor at shoulder height, palms up.

  • Roll your legs to the left side, lowering your knees toward the floor.

  • Return to center then roll your legs to the opposite side, keeping your knees bent and your upper body stable throughout.

  • Repeat four times each side, keeping your breathing normal. Try this before you go to bed to relax or first thing in the morning to wake up the hips, spine and lower back.

This seated rotational stretch also relieves tension while strengthening the lower back.

  • Sit upright on a chair, feet flat on the floor.

  • Place your fingers on your ears, with elbows sticking out to your sides.

  • Twist at the core to the right, keeping the hips pointed squarely ahead and the spine tall.

  • Hold for 10 seconds, breathing normally.

  • Repeat the exercise to the left

  • Repeat on each side three to five times, twice a day.

  • Begin on all fours in the tabletop position, drawing your navel in toward your spine. Use a towel under the knees if needed.

  • Raise one arm to shoulder height and the opposite leg to hip height.

  • Slowly lower and repeat with the other arm and leg.

  • Hold, then lower slowly and repeat.

  • This exercise can be done using a weight in each hand, as the core and back become stronger.

The muscles that run along either side of the spine are key to a strong back, but often don’t get enough attention. This move can help.

  • Lie face down on the floor and extend both arms out in front of the body, keeping the legs stretched out and flat on the ground.

  • Raise hands and feet, aiming to also lift the chest and knees off the floor.

  • Pull the belly button toward the spine as if you could lift it off the floor.

  • Keep the head straight and look at the floor to avoid straining the neck

  • Hold the position for two deep breaths.

  • Return to the starting position.

Keeping your gluteus maximus (buttocks) muscles strong can help support the lower back.

  • Lie on your back and bend the knees, feet flat and hip-width apart.

  • Press the feet into the floor, keeping the arms by the sides.

  • Raise the buttocks off the ground until the body forms a straight line from the shoulders to the knees and contract the muscles. Hold for four breaths.

  • Lower to the ground and rest for a few seconds.

  • Repeat five to 10 times and then rest for one minute.

  • Do three sets of five to 10 repetitions.

Yvonne Ferguson Hardin (Fergie) is the owner of Fergie’s Instructional Training FIT in Germantown, and specializes in helping older adults maintain and improve wellness through classes and seminars at long-term care facilities, senior centers and other venues.

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