To Your Health: Oh, My Aching Back!

Generally, I like to write my articles on health and fitness issues based on my 35 years of personal experiences. When it comes to back pain, I have had my share. It started in my mid-20s with a sudden twist of my upper body that took me to my knees. Several days of rest and moving gingerly, and I was back to my old self. The problem is that I paid little attention to a long-term solution. Sure, rest and anti-inflammatories will generally get you back on your feet, but if you’re like me the injury will eventually return. As I aged, the occurrences were not only more frequent, but more severe and debilitating. After decades of chronic pain, I finally decided to get serious about my back issues.

For all of my adult life I have been an avid exerciser. I started weight training in high school and have continued a regimented, three-times-a-week program. After college, in an effort to get rid of some post-athletic weight I had gained, I started running. Since we are all limited to the amount of time we can spend exercising, this seemed to be the perfect fit for my health needs. Then came the back issues. I’ve never been one to get medical advice for what I consider minor health issues and, in my mind, a pulled muscle in the back seems to be in the “minor” category. So every few months when my back went out (this being the diagnosis I had heard all my life), I would gingerly tiptoe through life, knowing in a few days I would be back to my normal self. But as previously mentioned, the occurrences became more often and the recovery time lasted longer. I realized I had a chronic problem that was not going to get better until I physically took the time to make it better.

My first step was realizing I needed to implement a flexibility program into my workout routine. For someone that’s been involved in fitness for over 30 years, you would think stretching would have been part of my regiment, but it wasn’t. I might occasionally take a few minutes at the end of a workout to reach for my toes or swing my arms around, and I somehow convinced myself that I had stretched out. Of course, my back always reminded me I was not doing enough!

Since I started personal training seven years ago, I’ve realized that my knowledge of fitness needed to expand from that of training young athletes, to training all ages and many different types of fitness related injuries. Through my studies, clients and my personal program, I have found three steps that can greatly reduce the muscle pulls or strains one gets in the lower back.

My first point of emphasis is daily stretching. The most important muscles are the hamstrings. Obviously stretching muscles over the entire body is great for injury prevention, but for lower back pulls, the key for me was the hamstring muscles. There are numerous ways to stretch your hamstring muscles, but sitting on the floor with legs in a V and going down to each foot and then to the middle works the hamstring and lower back. This should be done while gradually reaching farther and farther, then getting a good 20-30 second hold. For someone with back issues, I would recommend doing this twice a day.

The second point of emphasis is a strong core. Even for someone that doesn’t really exercise, it doesn’t take a lot of time, space, or cost to work the abs and do some stretching. The ab work that I’ve had success with revolves around getting your back muscles to work in conjunction with your core work. One exercise is to bend knees and elbows slightly while holding a light weight, and slowly going up and down (keep weight about 6 inches above head). The back should remain flat while the abs and back muscles (not the arms) lift the weight. Not only do I do this as an exercise, but I have made it a habit to contract my abs anytime I pick up something.

Finally, and probably the hardest to uphold, is to try and keep stress at a minimum in our lives. It’s hard to put a finger on the negative effects stress has on our health. But one thing for certain is that stress causes tension, which causes our muscular system to tighten up, and one wrong move and there goes the back. How to reduce stress is a whole other conversation, but when the stress mounts, make sure you do extra stretching and be aware of your body when doing tasks that can lead to back issues.

If you are currently having back spasms and strains, I encourage you to try these simple steps. I can honestly say, as a person who had chronic issues, I have been pain free for over five years!