Back pain is the most common chronic pain issue in the United States. In fact, 60–80 percent of adults struggle with it every day. Back pain most often develops from repeated stresses on joints that support the spine. And while many conditions lead to it, too much sitting is a common culprit. It leads to muscle imbalances and a weak core.
“Some muscles become overactive, and the other sides of those joints become underactive,” says Prentiss Rhodes, a master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. This puts stress on muscles, connective tissue, and joints and can lead to back pain.
Improving mobility, stability, and strength are all important factors in having a healthy back.
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How Sitting Can Hurt Your Back
Biomechanically, the human body is best when it’s moving. Long periods of sitting shorten the hamstrings and flatten the normal spinal curvature. Sitting doesn’t allow you to extend your hip flexors — the muscles you use to raise your knees and bend from the hips — so their range of motion becomes compromised, and they become tight, while your glute muscles become weak or inactive. These muscle groups are attached to the lower back, and the imbalance creates misalignment in the spine. It’s more likely to happen if your core muscles are weak and can’t keep the spine stable.
4 Exercises to Counteract Sitting
Rhodes recommends four types of exercises to strengthen and stretch your muscles to correct imbalances from sitting.
1. Hip Flexor Stretches
From a kneeling position, place your left knee on the floor directly under your left hip, and place the right foot in front, flat on the ground, directly over the right ankle and the right knee at a 90-degree angle. Using your glute muscles, gently push your left hip forward until you feel the stretch. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.
2. Core Strengtheners
Yoga and Pilates classes are often designed to develop core and spine strength. If that’s not your thing, add planks to your daily routine. The plank is one of the best exercises you can do for your core because it builds isometric strength (a static muscle contraction) to help improve your posture. Lie face down, with your legs extended and your elbows bent, directly under your shoulders. Contract your abs (this is the isometric contraction), then tuck your toes to lift your body off the ground. You should be in a straight line from head to heels. Hold for 60 seconds or as long as you can.
Back pain is a common side effect of a weak core. Exercises like the plank will strengthen the core, reducing back pain.
3. Glute Strengtheners
Most people don’t think about their glutes beyond how they look in jeans. However, weak and inactive glute muscles contribute to back, hip, and knee pain. Strengthening this group of muscles can lessen pain. Incorporating an exercise called bridge or hip raise into your daily stretches will strengthen glute muscles, the back of the thighs (hamstrings), and the core. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, with feet about hip-width apart. Slowly lift your hips, tighten your core, and press your heels into the floor for stability. Make sure the glutes are doing the work by squeezing them. Avoid pushing your hips too high; instead, aim for a straight line from your knees to your shoulders and hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
4. Hip Openers
There are many moves to open hips, but here’s one you can do at your desk: While sitting, cross your right leg, with the right ankle on your left knee. Keep your right leg parallel to the floor, or as close as you can. Gently push down on your right thigh and hold until you feel a good stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Cardio Can Relieve Back Pain
“Back-friendly cardio exercises not only help back pain patients stay more functional when discomfort does strike, but can help keep pain flare-ups at bay,” says Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of the Atlantic Spine Center, based in West Orange, N.J. Walking, swimming, or using an elliptical trainer or stationary bike are all good options.
Cardio promotes healing by increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the spine, reduces joint stiffness, increases production of endorphins — feel-good chemicals — and helps control weight, which reduces stress on the spine.
How to Check Your Posture
If your posture is poor, it probably feels normal, and you may not be able to spot what needs to be corrected. Getting an objective view will raise your awareness of your body position. A fitness trainer can check it. Or, ask a friend to take a photo or video of your head-to-toe profile while you stand, relaxed, arms at your sides, looking straight ahead.
There should be a straight line from the center of your feet, up through your knees, hips, and shoulders, to a point just behind your lower ear, where you can feel the edge of your skull. Your feet should be pointing straight ahead, with the weight evenly distributed. Rhodes suggests envisioning each foot being a tripod, with the three points being the big toe, baby toe, and heel.
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Meet the Expert: Emmanouil Karampahtsis (Dr. K), NMD, is Naturopathic Medical Doctor practicing in Scottsdale, Ariz., since 2004. He has extensive knowledge in aesthetic and antiaging medicine, bio-identical hormone balancing, and biological medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.