When we think about staying active, we normally envision walking, running, cycling…using our arms and legs to get the heart pumping.
We think less often about the foundation of all our movement – the unsung hero that is our back. Barely any of us pay attention to it, except when something goes wrong. But in truth, understanding just how many our backs affect our fitness can have a really positive impact on how active you can be.
But in truth, understanding just how many our backs affect our fitness can have a really positive impact on how active you can be.
If your muscles, joints and flexibility are like an orchestra, think of your back as a conductor! Your spinal column provides essential postural support to all other body parts, while at the same time enabling you to move in many different directions. It’s made up of 33 bones (vertebrae) with discs that act as shock absorbers in between.
The vertebrae in your neck differ from the vertebrae in your lower spine. The lower vertebrae are much bigger and stronger as they support almost your whole upper body, while your neck vertebrae just provides support to your head. Interestingly, it is the shape of the vertebrae that determines the directions you can move in. That’s why your neck moves much more freely than your lower spine.
The chain of vertebrae and discs are supported by numerous muscles, tendons and ligaments. These provide strength and stability. The muscles are connected to your bones with tendons. When a muscle contracts, the forces are passed onto the skeletal system via the tendons. This ensures that a muscle contraction results in a movement to a particular body part. The ligaments not only provide stability to our joints, they are also flexible and can stretch or contract whenever joints move.
As you can see, this “conductor” has to manage a very delicate and interconnected symphony. Without this, we wouldn’t be able to move at all, let alone get active.
Taking care of the foundations.
Most people have experienced pain in their lower, middle or upper back. Back pain niggles are part of life, and for some more than others. From a minor twinge to pain that can really limit your lifestyle, it pays to understand the causes – and what we can do to avoid them.
In point of fact, few cases of back pain are the result of a serious accident or injury. The vast majority are simply caused by the accumulative effects of our lifestyles. Daily habits such as hunching to read your mobile phone screen or slouching in front of the computer can place strain on your spine and the surrounding muscles. When we keep repeating the same bad habits, this can leave us vulnerable to back injury. Yet there’s plenty we can do to avoid the common back pain triggers with a little know-how.
Sitting still – sitting hunched over a computer all day is one of the worst things you can do for your back. This is all down to inactivity which impacts on your body by weakening your joints and spine.
Try it: get up and walk around for two minutes, at least once an hour. You can also improve your posture while you’re sitting down by aiming for a neutral spine position where everything is in line.
“The Smartphone Stare” – the head-down position we use when looking at phones and laptops strains the muscles in the neck. This can extend all the way down to your spine and lower back.
Try it: make sure you take frequent screen breaks and try looking straight ahead rather that down at your screen.
Stress – when we’re feeling under pressure this causes our back muscles to tense up. Stress also causes your levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) to soar. This leads to inflammation in the body, making the problem worse.
Try it: the latest research shows that gentle exercise such as walking or yoga, is very effective at relieving back pain. Getting outdoors has also been proven to reduce stress levels. Just a 15-minute daily stroll will make a difference.
Sneezing – did you know sneezing is one of the top five causes of back pain? A sneeze’s speed of release can be up to 100 miles per hour and thanks to its sheer force, we can experience a whiplash effect, causing both back and neck pain.
Try it: when you feel a sneeze coming on, bend your knees to absorb the force in your lower legs instead of your spine. Alternatively, if you’re able to (depending on where you are when a sneeze strikes), turn your whole body when you’re about to sneeze to keep your back straight.
Smoking – one of the key elements of how the structures in your body function is blood flow, which provides oxygen and nutrients. Researchers have found smoking damages tissue in the lower back as a result of the reduced flow of nutrients to joints and muscles.
Try it: Stopping smoking is of course a challenge, but can be accomplished with support. Have a chat with your doctor or practice nurse about enrolling onto a ‘stop smoking’ clinic. There’s also a range of options to help you cut back such as e-cigarettes, nicotine patches and gum plus other medications.
Stretching – It’s not enough to just stretch your arms when you wake up. Your back needs a good stretch too to keep it both strong and flexible.
Try it: when stretching your back, it’s important to move in six different directions. This includes flexing forwards, backwards, rotating to the right and left and moving sideways right and left. You can do this sitting, lying or standing – the choice is yours. For more information on stretching exercises, take a look at our piece on the benefits of stretching.
Any one – or all – of these practices will go a long way to helping ensure that this most overlooked, yet pivotal part of our bodies remains in balance, strong – and able to provide the essential foundation we need for an active and happy life.