Prevent Back Injuries with Exercise

Prevent Back Injuries with Exercise

A few days ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I stumbled across a post of a family friend from my childhood. When I was a kid, our favorite pastime was exploring the many hills, woods, and creeks of southern Louisiana and Mississippi, armed only with self-fashioned walking sticks and lots of gumption. We haven’t seen each other in many years (he lives in the Pacific Northwest, and I live in NYC), and I was intrigued by the beginning of his post, so I clicked “Read More.” The post went on to describe how he had injured his back that day by using a screwdriver overhead, and he proceeded to wax eloquent on the benefits of exchanging physical vitality for the wisdom of age. I searched the post for a hint of irony or sarcasm, but no – he was completely serious.

Why was I incensed by this post?

My friend is 26 years old. 

Even worse, he is not the only person I know who has developed what could be called “age-related” conditions at relatively (or extremely) young ages. More and more people with sedentary lifestyles throw their backs out, develop weak knees, freeze their shoulders, and lose their hip flexibility in their 20’s, 30’s, and early 40’s – decades during which joint injuries should be a non-issue for the average adult.

The reason that aging can happen at any age is that the perception of aging is largely a mental game, and the way we think influences the way we live.

When young people exit high school and/or college, they essentially have a choice to make in their 20’s as they begin a new lifestyle that is not dominated by school scheduling. They can respond to the new challenges of adulthood by taking better care of themselves (exercising, eating healthfully, sleeping sufficiently, etc.), or they can lump the consequences of a sedentary, unmindful, excessive lifestyle under the abdicating category of “aging.”

Many people choose to avoid responsibility, and miss out on a better quality of life that could be achieved through simple exercises, as well as food choices. 

Once you decide that you would like to experience more flexibility, strength, and agility, simple lifestyle changes and exercises can accomplish this in an amazingly short amount of time, whether you’re 20 or 80.

A positive attitude about getting older can lead to positive actions that benefit the body and spirit long-term.

Currently, I am reading Dr. Christiane Northrup’s most recent book, Goddesses Never Age, so I may be especially sensitive to ageisms from young people right now! I was lucky enough to see her in person at Hay House’s NYC conference last month, and as a personal trainer and exercise specialist, I appreciated that her presentation focused on movement as a source of vitality and vibrance.

Please enjoy the following brief story from her book, and I highly recommend ordering the book (I am not an affiliate and I don’t benefit from you purchase, by the way – I am recommending this out of pure fan spirit!):

“I was on a family trip with my siblings and my mother a couple of years ago, and we ended up having to use a moving walkway in the Istanbul airport to get to our flight on time. My mother, who was 87 then, was was looking back when the moving walkway suddenly ended. She stumbled onto the floor in front of it and instinctively reached out to try to catch herself, but there was no railing. She started to fall off the side, and there was a two-foot drop down to the sidewalk. Realizing she was falling, she sprang off the end of the walkway and landed two feet below, then ran forward to work off the momentum resulting from losing her balance… If she had been less fit and agile, we’d have spent the next month in a  Turkish hospital standing by while she recovered from a hip fracture. Her instinctive self-preserving physical motions were the result of a lifetime of physical prowess and movement.”  

What an amazing story. And as a personal trainer, I’d have to agree, although you don’t have to be a lifelong athlete to live pain-free in very short order. And even though “Gods Never Age” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, remember that men can also benefit from simple strengthening exercises, yoga poses, and stretches to prevent back pains and injuries.

Here’s the bottom line:

The most effective way to prevent back injuries with exercise is to develop core strength and hip flexibility.

The main thing to remember is that the core is not an isolated “six-pack” – the core is comprised of your “abs,” back, and butt altogether. The following exercises may not whittle you a chiseled six-pack, but if performed consistently 2-3 times a week, they will prevent injury and allow you to be faster, more graceful, and pain-free in your daily activities of living. I should mention that weight loss, if you carry excess “baggage” especially around your midsection, also helps to take the pressure off of joints, but that is an article for another time. For now, start practicing these moves as a step in the right direction!

If you have any fear of falling or injuring yourself in performing exercises, use a chair, wall, partner, or all three to assist you in your movements!

Top 10 Moves to Prevent Back Injuries with Exercise

  1. Squats – The squat is the champion of simple exercise moves, as long as it is performed with correct form. You can do a squat with or without extra weight – for beginners, body weight is enough to stimulate muscle fibers to become stronger. Start by planting your feet shoulder width apart with your arms by your side. Then, sit back and down as far as you can while you simultaneously extend your arms forward in front of you. Return to standing. That’s one rep. If you are concerned about falling, you can always put a chair behind you so that you are almost sitting and then returning to standing. 12 squats performed three times, with a one-minute rest between each set, is adequate for beginners.
  2. One-Leg Reaches – Also known as the “one-leg deadlift,” these exercises borrow resistance flexibility from yoga and allow you to simultaneously stretch and build strength. Start by standing with your feet shoulder width apart. Gently shift your weight to your right foot, put your left hand on your left hip, and simultaneously reach to the ground in front of you with your right hand while your left leg slowly rises behind you in opposition to the motion of your right arm. Both legs should be straight without the knees locked. The move should be performed slowly and with control, and the lifted leg should be lifted high – at least parallel with the torso. Return to standing. Do 12 on one side and then 12 on the other, and perform three sets of this exercise with one minute of rest in between each set. If you are concerned about falling, you can do this move with a wall, chair, or ballet bar in front of you so that you can lightly catch your balance if you begin to fall. Try to execute the move without holding onto anything, however, so that you build your balance. Once you become confident at this move, you can always add a light weight (5-20 lbs.) to grip with the moving hand.
  3. Warrior I – This move also allows you to simultaneously stretch and strengthen. It’s a common yoga pose that is used in many beginner yoga classes, and is safe and easy for new exercisers. Start by standing tall with your feet shoulder width apart. Take a large step forward with your right foot, simultaneously pivoting your left foot so that it is still flat on the floor, at a 45-degree angle away from your body. Bend your right knee (the front leg), keep your left leg (the back leg) straight, and lean your hips into the stretch as you keep your torso tall and your hips squared forward. To keep it safe for your joints, make sure that you are not leaning forward and that your right knee is not going past your right foot. To maximize the stretch that this gives your hip flexors, turn your torso slightly to the right, over the front leg, and you will feel the stretch more intensely in your left hip. Hold for five breaths, then switch legs.
  4. King Dancer – This is another common yoga pose that combines resistance with stretching. However, it is more advanced in terms of balance and is not ideal for beginners – you should have assistance from another person if you are worried about falling. It helps to have a yoga strap or a regular towel handy. Start by standing tall. Shift your weight onto your left foot, and loop the strap or towel around your right foot. Hold the strap with your right hand overhead, with your right elbow pointed towards the ceiling. Eventually (over weeks), you should be able to grip the strap with both hands, pulling the leg higher, and finally you should be able to ditch the strap altogether and hold onto your foot with your hands. Another variation is to simply stand on your left foot, lift your right leg into the air behind you, and grip your right foot with your right hand while you reach forward with your left hand. Perform your variation of the move on both sides of the body, holding for five breaths each.
  5. Donkey Kicks – Now we are moving onto the mat. Get on your hands and knees, and make sure that your spine is in a neutral position. Contracting your abdominal muscles, slowly lift your right foot so that your right heel is ascending towards the ceiling (not extending behind you). You should feel your glutes contract. Slowly bring the same knee close in to your chest, and that is one rep. Do 12 reps on each side, and perform three sets with a one minute rest between each set. Keep your abdominal muscles contracted the entire time.
  6. Plank – On the mat, place your hands firmly on the ground and extend your legs so that only your feet (toes) and hands are touching the mat. Think of the beginning of a pushup. Hold this position for five breaths. Eventually, build up to holding this position for 20 breaths. Contract your abdominal muscles (pulling them in) the entire time.
  7. Arm and Leg Raise from Plank – Once you have become accustomed to doing plank, you can add this simple move to your repertoire. Start in plank, and then slowly raise your right arm and left leg simultaneously. Slowly lower them back to the ground, and then raise the opposite arm and leg. Keep your abdominal muscles contracted the entire time, and perform the raises and the return to center with slow control. Perform 12 on each side. Perform three sets of this exercise, with a minute of rest between each set.
  8. Touchdowns  / Toe Taps – This Pilates move is a classic for strengthening the transverse abdominus, which wraps around the entire torso and protects the spine from injury. Turn over so that you are lying on your back, and raise your bent legs so that your upper legs and shins form 90-degree angles to your torso (in other words, knees up and feet forward with relaxed feet). Place your hands on the ground next to your waist for support, and make sure that your lower back is flat against the floor and that your abdominal muscles are sucked in. Slowly, slowly lower your right foot, maintaining the 90-degree angle between your upper legs and shins. Lightly tap your foot down to the floor but don’t rest it there, and then slowly bring it back up to the 90-degree position with your torso. Then do the same with your left foot. Keep your lower back on the ground and your abs contracted the entire time. Do 20 on each side, and do two sets with a minute of rest in between each set.
  9. Hamstring Resistance Stretch – Remain flat on your back, and extend both legs so that you are lying on the floor. Grab a strap if you need it, and wrap it around your right foot. If you are not using a strap (meaning, you’re really flexible already), grip your right foot with your fingertips. Extend the right leg straight up at a 90-degree angle to your body, and push against the resistance of your hands/strap by gradually straightening out your leg. Keep your left leg flat on the floor. Hold for five breaths, then switch legs. You may not be able to straighten the knee all the way at first. Keep working at it, but know that not everyone has the same level of biomechanical flexibility. Deep stretches like this may be very difficult for you, but even if you can’t straighten your knee ever, you are still reaping benefits from the unlocking of your hamstrings. Just do it! You can mix up this stretch as well by moving your lifted leg first to one side and then the other, which produces a powerful stretch to various muscles in the posterior chain (back, butt, hamstrings). Make sure to keep your abs contracted when attempting advanced moves that twist your body.
  10. Thread the Needle – This is another fantastic yoga pose for hip flexibility. Stay on your back, and bend your left knee with your left foot flat on the floor. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh just above your left knee as if you are sitting in a chair, and reach your arms around your left knee (your right arm will “thread the needle” of space between your bent legs), and pull your left knee to your chest. Hold for five breaths, and then switch sides. This is a powerful, opening stretch!

If you want to kick your vitality into overdrive, you can also add exercises like deadlifts, weighted squats, and pistol squats into your repertoire.

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