What's the first thing you do when you stand up after an hour of watching TV or a long drive? You stretch. That's because even just an hour of sitting can cause some stiffness in the spine. Stretches and other spine-strengthening exercises can help keep your spine flexible and mobile as well as counteract the effects of sitting too much.
Most people spend between six and nine hours a day sitting at school or work, and that doesn't even include the sitting that comes with eating, driving, reading, watching TV or playing video games. That much time in the chair can come with some serious health risks, including risks associated with back pain. The good news is that there are things you can do to help prevent back pain related to sitting.
“The most effective way to improve spine health is regular exercise, which includes core strengthening,” says Dr. Houtan Taba, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Texas Orthopedic Hospital. “Improving the strength and endurance of the muscles that surround your spine helps prevent injury and recover quicker from back pain. Additionally, being mindful of posture and head or neck positions can help prevent problems with the spine that are a product of the increasing use of technology in the modern workplace and at home.”
Regular exercise, especially brisk walking, is a great start. Doing tai chi, yoga or Pilates can help strengthen your back and keep it limber. When you're at work or school, be sure to take breaks, mind your posture and take other precautions to ward off health complications tied to sitting too much.
Adding spine-strengthening exercises to your daily routine can also keep your back strong and flexible and help prevent back pain.
Where does it hurt?
When we think of an aching back, we often think of low back or lumbar pain, but sitting can be especially hard on the upper back (thoracic spine) and neck. Staring at a computer or another type of screen for extended periods of time can put additional stress on this area. You may feel symptoms of back pain in your spine, neck, arms or legs. Indeed, "tech neck" is an increasingly common cause of pain among mobile devices users.
Dr. Taba says most back injuries are a result of poor posture or improper lifting techniques, which can result in sprains or a herniated disc that may require injections or surgery for relief.
“I often also see patients who have recurrent episodes of back or neck pain from long-standing arthritic conditions in the spine that flare at periods of time from activity or from simply sleeping in an awkward position,” he says.
If you're experiencing serious or persistent pain, or if you haven't exercised in a while, you should see a doctor before starting a new physical activity. If you're in good health and you've noticed mild back stiffness recently, you should be able to add the following series of gentle back exercises without risk. The goal is to build strength and flexibility in the back and abdomen (core) muscles that support the spine.
“The spine is the critical pillar of the body that allows us to stand and walk upright,” says Dr. Taba. “The stress the spine sees over a lifetime is immense. The consequences of small behaviors and minor injuries can multiply over time and lead to trouble later in life, which is why it’s important to remember to use proper posture when lifting something heavy, avoiding unnecessary stress on the spine and keeping the spine strong and flexible.”
Easy spine-strengthening exercises
You can do spine-strengthening exercises at any time that works for you, but the best time may be in the morning. You can even do them before you get out of bed to activate your muscles and get ready for the day.
- Lying on your back with your spine straight, pull your knees up and bring your heels toward your buttocks, keeping your feet on the floor or mattress.
- Extend your legs again, and repeat this process five times.
- If that gets too easy over time, try picking up your feet and extending your legs in the air straight out from your knees.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your abdominal muscles tight.
- Let your knees fall gently to one side, keeping your shoulders flat.
- Return your knees to the center, and then let them fall to the other side.
- Repeat this five times in each direction.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your arms by your side.
- Slowly lift your spine off the mattress or floor, starting with the base of your spine and progressing through each individual vertebra until your lower, middle and upper back are lifted.
- Hold for a few seconds, and then gently roll back down in the opposite order.
- Rest for a few seconds, and repeat this exercise three times.
- Lie on your right side and support your head with your right arm.
- Lift your left leg up and hold it at a 45-degree angle for 30 seconds.
- Then, lower your leg, rest and repeat this process five times.
- Switch to your left side and do the same thing.
- Position yourself on your hands and knees with your hands parallel to your shoulders and your knees parallel to your hips.
- Suck in your abdominal muscles, lift your lower and middle back as a cat would, and let your head tip forward.
- Next, push your upper back and abdomen down, and lift your head up to look forward.
- Repeat this process slowly five times.
If you have a foam roller or tennis ball, you can also place it on the floor, lie down on it, and roll back and forth along your spine to release tension in the muscles.
By practicing these spine-strengthening exercises every day, you can start to relieve your back pain and improve your overall spinal health.
Dr. Taba says the key to successful change is a long-term change in your habits. He encourages his patients to identify activities and exercises that they enjoy to help them commit to a more active lifestyle.