This article was written by Vera Tweed and originally published in Amazing Wellness magazine.
The most common chronic pain issue in the United States, back pain affects 60 to 80 percent of adults every day. Back pain often develops from repeated stresses on joints that support the spine. While many conditions can cause it, too much sitting, which leads to muscle imbalances and a weak core, is a common culprit.
A healthy, pain-free back requires proper mobility, stability, and strength.
How Sitting Can Hurt Your Back
Biomechanically, the human body is at its best when it’s moving.
Long periods of sitting shorten your hamstrings, flatten your normal spinal curvature, prevent you from extending your hip flexors (them and compromising their range of motion), and weaken your glute muscles. These muscle groups are attached to the lower back, and imbalances in them create misalignment in the spine—especially if your core muscles are weak and can’t keep the spine stable. “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.
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. (Check out five of the most effective abs moves.)
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.
As you build strength, try this glutes workout.
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.
“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, M.D., Ph.D., founder and president of the Atlantic Spine Center in West Orange, NJ. 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.