According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, back pain is one of the most common medical problems in the United States. In fact, during any three-month period, about 25 percent of adults have back pain lasting for at least one day. Most of these episodes are related to short-term injuries that could be prevented if the back and abdominal muscles were stronger. Strengthening these muscles can be done with some easy exercises, many of which may also help some people with long-term back problems.
How Exercise Helps Common Back Problems
Strong back and abdominal muscles provide support to the spinal vertebrae and other bones. Exertion, twisting or heavy lifting can cause muscle strain or ligament sprains. Studies show that people who engage in moderate physical activity of any kind can help prevent these types of injuries.
Back problems become more common with age, very often because of mechanical causes such as deteriorating or herniated discs. Discs are made up of a strong gel-like tissue that cushions each vertebra. Over time, they break down and become weaker and may rupture if stressed. Muscle strengthening can reduce the risk of injuries due to aging discs, and studies also show that low-impact aerobic exercise helps to maintain strong discs.
Exercise Safety Tips
Anyone with new back pain should see a healthcare professional before beginning an exercise program because some causes of pain need to be treated promptly—such as infection or tumors. People with underlying medical problems including osteoporosis, spinal structural problems or muscle diseases should also see a doctor before beginning back exercises.
To get the most out of back strengthening exercises, follow these tips:
- Warm up by gently stretching.
- Move slowly and smoothly, avoiding sudden and jerking movements.
- Do not do any exercise to the point of pain (some discomfort and stiffness can be expected).
- Keep up slow and deep breaths throughout each exercise and stop if any dizziness occurs.
- Begin with five repetitions of each exercise and increase that number as tolerated.
The Best Exercises
Strengthening back muscles as well as abdominal muscles provides support to the upper, middle and lower back. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), starting gradually is the best way to build up back strength. Here are some beginning exercises adapted from the AAOS Low Back Pain Exercise Guide. People who have back problems should consult with a physical therapist or doctor before starting a program.
Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and knees bent. Place hands on your stomach just below your ribs. Tighten abdominal muscles as you squeeze your ribcage down towards your back. Hold the contraction for up to five seconds then relax.
Stand with your back leaning against the wall. Walk forward about 12 inches. Tighten the abdominal muscles while bending both knees 45 degrees. Hold that position for up to five seconds, then slowly unbend knees and return to your original stance.
Straight Leg Raises
Lie on your back, keeping one leg straight and one knee bent. Tighten your abdominal muscles and slowly lift the straight leg up at least six inches (up to 12 if possible) and hold the position for up to five seconds. Slowly lower your leg back down and do the same sequence with the other leg.
Get on your hands and knees. Allow your back to sag slightly toward the floor and hold for five seconds. Then arch your back toward the ceiling while tightening the muscles of your abdomen and buttocks and hold for five seconds.
Shoulder Blade Squeeze
Sit with your back straight on a stool or an armless chair. Tuck your chin into your chest and pull your shoulder blades together. Hold that position for five seconds.
Lower Back Rotation Stretch
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Keeping your shoulders on the floor, roll your knees to one side and hold for five to 10 seconds. Then roll your knees to the other side and hold.
Lie on your back with the knees bent. Cross your arms on your chest and use your abdominal muscles to pull your shoulders off the floor. Hold that position for up to 10 seconds. If necessary, support your neck with one hand.
Aerobic exercise is an important addition to any back strengthening program according to AAOS, but the spine should be kept in a neutral position to avoid strain or other injuries. Using a treadmill or exercise bike for aerobic activities are good ways to keep the spine from bending too much.
While exercise alone is an important factor, making muscles stronger also involves following good nutrition principles. Protein, whether from meat or plant sources, is necessary for muscle building and repair. Calcium and vitamin D also have an important role in keeping muscles stronger, especially in later years. Most of all, regular checkups are essential for the management of ongoing back problems.