There are many reasons to maintain fitness at any age. One of the most important is to prevent back injuries and back pain. Lower back pain is the second most common cause of disability among U.S. adults. Eight out of every ten Americans will experience back pain during their life. For 20% of us, this pain becomes chronic, taking a terrible toll on the course of our lives. While there are congenital conditions or consequences of injuries you will not be able to “fix” completely, you can always improve how you function and move, reducing the impact of these conditions on your life.
If you’re already suffering from a back injury or back pain, there are things you can do to help yourself heal whether or not your course of treatment involves surgery — and those non-surgical methods for healing and enhancing fitness are most likely to prevent future injuries and minimize ongoing pain. If surgery isn’t mandatory, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to invest time in less radical measures that will serve you well over a lifetime if you maintain them? If surgery is recommended, be sure you know the source of your back pain before starting down that path — and seek another opinion.
Six treatments to prevent or manage back injuries and pain
1. Gaining or regaining physical fitness. Unfortunately, “Only 30 percent of people ages 45 to 64, 25 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds, and 11 percent of people 85 and older say they exercise regularly, according to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).” As a result, more likely than not, your back injury or pain is a warning flag telling you to become part of the 30%. The good news is, it’s never too late!
As part of your physical therapy (or “fitness enhancement”), you’ll concentrate first on your “core,” strengthening the muscles of your trunk, back and pelvis. They are your body’s powerhouse — every move you make starts in your core. Yup, that even means your movements sitting at a desk, your movements when you are “at rest,” just breathing. Your core connects your upper and lower body. Every movement starts in your core and ripples upward and downward in the integrated system that is your body. In a healthy body, everything is interconnected, and a movement in one area of your body impacts other areas. Your core coordinates it all.
As you strengthen your core, better posture will follow. Your core is like a central organizer for your body’s operations. Every move you make starts in your core, and strong core muscles bring the rest of your body into proper relationship. As you strengthen your core, your abdominal muscles tighten, your chest lifts, your shoulders move back, your breathing improves, and you project confidence, strength, grace.
Stronger core muscles and better posture lead to strength, stability and balance. A strong core “allows you to move in any direction, even on the bumpiest terrain, or stand in one spot without losing your balance.” Now losing your balance as you stand in one spot probably sounds like something that’s just not going to happen when you’re 20-something, but as you get older, or if you have sustained an injury, balance becomes more of an issue. A strong core and better posture generate the strength and balance that help you recover from an injury, minimize pain and prevent future injuries.
You’ll need other kinds of exercise as well, including stretching and flexibility exercises. Initially your physical therapist will guide you through these, but as you progress and begin to take more responsibility for your ongoing fitness, Pilates and Yoga offer excellent techniques for improving balance, flexibility and torso strength, and yoga’s focus on deep, cleansing breaths makes it an excellent aid to paying attention to your core.
Many exercise programs use modified yoga poses in their routines. You Staying Young by Drs. Oz and Roizen offers one such routine directed toward strengthening the core using some yoga techniques. The routine describes itself as using one’s “body as a gym,” balancing, stretching, bending, twisting, bearing your body weight in strategic ways.
Until you’re ready for more rigorous exercises, your physical therapist can guide you less demanding chair exercises — even bed exercises. And at the other end of your healing process, don’t give up the progress you’ve made when your back feels better! If you return to a sedentary job, try to get up and move around at least every hour. When you’re sitting, maintain good posture by using your abdominal muscles, lifting your feet an inch or two off the floor while you sit, turning in your chair . . . all movements that contribute to strengthening your core. Get a pedometer and walk. Join a gym, and continue your core strengthening, flexibility and stretching exercise. If you prefer not to go to a gym, there are many trainers who offer routines and instruction online.
3. Eat healthfully and lose weight
If your medical professional recommends it. Correct eating and a correct weight are important to your recovery program. A healthy diet that allows your body to find its correct natural weight has tremendous benefits and not only as you heal from back injury or pain. Correct eating also reduces the risk of diabetes and related issues as well as heart disease and stroke, all reducing physical fitness and putting your back more at risk.
So what makes a great diet? Dr. Fuhrman, who specializes in functional medicine, promotes a nutrient dense diet, which is becoming the consensus for the best way to eat. Several of his acronyms and visual aids make great nutrition easy to understand:
G-BOMBS are foods to eat every day: Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Berries and Seeds.
The Nutritarian Pyramid provides a great visual of the relative amounts of various food categories in a healthy diet, with plant foods taking up at least 70-80%.
ANDI Food Scores demonstrate what Nutrient Density is at a glance, with greens offering top nutrient density.
In short, focus on plant foods, and eat very small amounts of meat, added sugars, or added oils. As Michael Pollan, journalist and food guru reminds us so succinctly, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
4. Don’t ignore digestive issues Your digestive system has a “mind of its own,” the enteric nervous system, also known as your “belly brain.” That makes up 75% of your immunity! And “If you don’t have functional use of the abdomen, it is going to restrict digestion,” and poor digestion will create havoc with your recovery process, depressing your immune system and creating bodily stress. Stronger core muscles make everything work better, including digestion — just remember to follow your core strengthening exercise with releasing the tension in your belly area to gain the full effect of improved digestion.
5. Practice mindfulness, especially as you walk every day Walking is an important and basic part of a daily routine. The first part of rehabilitation is to get people off the bed as soon as possible. As you walk, concentrate on your abdominal muscles and your breathing. Tighten your abdominals to force out air. Extend them as you bring in air. Let your tightened abdominals carry you in an upright posture. Swing your arms. Practice mindfulness with each step and each breath. Notice where you place your feet and how you move them. Mindful walking is a gentle way to exercise, strengthen your core for back protection, develop better balance and prevent additional injury. You are less likely to fall and less likely to strain a muscle or ligaments in the integrated system that is your body. Studies show that mindfulness practice reduces pain.
6. Breathe Yes, just breathe — but correctly. Yoga teaches us that most of us take shallow breaths. How can we tell? Because our chest rises when we breathe in when it should be our abdomen. And when we breathe out . . . it should be the opposite. We should suck in those abdominals to force out the air. Learning how to breathe correctly will not only strengthen your core and therefore your back, it will release toxins and draw fresh air in deep where it will reach every cell in your body more efficiently. Our breath connects us to everything in the universe, and connection to something greater than ourselves reduces pain.
Keep your focus in the moment
If you’re just getting started, start slowly and keep your focus on the moment. You don’t want to get overwhelmed with how far you have to go. Instead take pleasure in what you’re doing today — and stay with your routine. This applies to your exercise program as well as improving your nutrition. If you haven’t been exercising or eating healthfully, just starting to pay attention is a great first step. Sit correctly. Do leg lifts while you sit. Twists in your chair. Before exercising, do simple stretches. Start with shorter walks and extend, with two pound weights and increase when you’re ready. Gradually increase your plant food intake, which will naturally lead to a reduction in other less desirable items. Avoid packaged foods and added sugars and sweeteners, and make simple meals at home from real food.
We all have obstacles to overcome in life. If you’re struggling with an injury or a health challenge, it may be a blessing in disguise if it inspires you to focus on more effective ways to live your best life. Let regaining your strength, balance and general fitness and eating wholesome real food serve as your starting point.