Give your spine the support it needs

Try exercises that strengthen and stretch back, abdominal and leg muscles to keep your back strong and healthy.

Published February 27, 2007

"The spinal column is a long chain of bones. The head sits on the top and you sit on the bottom."

- Anonymous


"Oh, my aching back" . . . words that four out of five Americans can expect to utter at some time. Back problems are thought to be the most expensive "benign" health condition in America, costing millions of lost workdays and billions in medical care and disability payments.

Humans have about 650 muscles in their bodies, but as we age, the most prevalent and debilitating muscle problems are those in the back. Even everyday movements can affect the health of your back. As Dr. Ira Fisch, a Maryland orthopedic surgeon specializing in spinal problems, notes, "You could bend over to pick up a pencil and have the same problem as someone who picks up a load of bricks."

The basic problem we face is that unconditioned muscles cannot give the spine the proper support it needs. The abdominals and back muscles require targeted exercises for strengthening and stretching, or they will ultimately weaken, increasing the risk of developing back pain.

Probably more than any other muscle group, the lower back requires a balance between strength and flexibility. You need to not only strengthen and stretch the back muscles, but you also need to include the neighboring muscles that give support to the spine: the abdominals, hips and gluteals (buttocks).

Here are tips to help maintain a healthy back:

VARIETY. Go for a variety of ab exercises rather than numerous repetitions of just a couple of exercises. If you perform too many reps of the same exercise, chances are you will become bored and lose proper form and thus the benefit of the exercise.

"Alternating your workout is more important than cranking out 100 crunches every day," says Michael Olson, professor of exercise science at Auburn University. "Perform 15 to 20 reps of each exercise, then move on."

UPPER AND LOWER BACK. Even though these muscle groups are close to each other, they have different tasks to perform and require different styles of a workout. You use your upper back muscles whenever you are pulling something toward your body, while the lower back muscles enable you to turn to the side.

Lower back exercises require a more delicate movement and often are performed without weights or machinery. A common mistake while exercising the lower back is performing the movement too quickly; always focus on what you are doing and perform slow, controlled movements.

Common mistakes while working the upper back are piling on too much weight and pulling the weight with a vengeance. Another mistake is pulling a bar down behind your neck: This movement could overstretch the ligaments and place too much strain on the rotator cuff.

STRONG LEGS. The leg muscles play a pivotal role in helping to maintain good posture. When it comes to lifting heavy items, those strong legs can take the burden off the back.

STRENGTHEN AND STRETCH. Tight muscles need to be stretched, and weak muscles need to be strengthened. An example would be tight hamstrings (back of thighs) and weak abdominals. Tight hamstrings will limit mobility in the pelvis, thereby increasing stress on the lower back.

WORK ON FLEXIBILITY. To increase flexibility, reduce tension, strengthen and stabilize the core muscles, try Pilates, yoga, tai chi or ballet classes.

A LITTLE CARDIO. When you are jogging, doing low-impact aerobics or playing a sport such as tennis, you are strengthening the core muscles while improving your cardiovascular fitness.

BEND THE KNEES. When lifting anything, always protect the back by contracting the abdominals and bending the knees; then grasp the item and let your thighs do the work. Maintain a solid base by placing your feet far enough apart.

CONTRACTIONS. Each time you perform abdominal exercises, inhale as you contract the abdominals and exhale strongly on the release. This strengthens the transversus abdominis, the deepest abdominal muscle, which wraps around the spine for protection and support. Do a few contractions throughout the day, minus the abdominal exercises.

If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning ANY exercise program. Sally Anderson, a trainer, is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her in care of Life Times, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.