If you’ve ever thrown out your back, you know what a nightmare it is. Having a stiff, achy, sore lower back area can make it difficult to get through the day or do the simplest of tasks. Sometimes, back pain can even lead to a trip to urgent care or the emergency room.
Fortunately, there are some easy and effective ways to help prevent back problems from happening and keep your spine and muscles healthy and strong.
One of the best solutions is to move regularly. “The human body is meant to move,” says Colleen Louw, a physical therapist and program director for the Therapeutic Pain Specialist Program at Evidence in Motion in Story City, Iowa. She’s also a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “The most significant risk of experiencing low back pain and injuries is not moving or staying in one position too long,” she says.
Yet the average American sits almost six and a half hours every day, which can also increase your risk of developing chronic health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure.
“Without regular movement, tissues shorten and muscles lose mass, which in turn get weaker,” Louw explains. “Lack of movement — or inactivity — can contribute to low-grade inflammation between joints, leading to stiffness.”
To get in front of potential back issues before they crop up, there are several movements you can do at the gym, at home, or even at work to help keep your low back healthy.
“These exercises can be performed daily as part of a physical activity routine to help prevent low back stiffness, pain, and injuries,” says Louw. “Talk to your doctor or physical therapist before doing these poses, especially if you have a chronic back condition or a recent back injury.”
Here are 5 easy exercises or stretches you can do during the day to avoid back pain.
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Yes, it’s as easy as getting out of your office chair and moving around. “If you sit for much of the day, one of the most convenient exercises is getting up and walking for a few minutes — on the hour, if you can,” says Louw.
It’s just as easy as it sounds: Simply stand up and walk around regularly throughout the day. To give yourself a goal, pair that walk with an activity like brewing a cup of coffee or boiling some water for tea. And it’s always a good idea to change your position as much as possible so you don’t get stuck in the same one for too long.
There are health reasons for doing this, says Louw. Regular movement gets your blood flowing, especially to important areas like your muscles, tendons, and nerves. “Movement creates space and allows blood and fluid to transfer in and around the joint, which helps prevent the cartilage from compromise,” she adds.
Sometimes, you might be in a meeting or in your car and can’t just stand up and walk around. In those situations, Louw offers two helpful stretches you can do while sitting down to help ease any pressure on your back. (Make sure your car is in park before trying these!)
While you’re lying on your back, lift one or both knees up to your chest and then back to the starting position. Repeat 15 to 20 times. This kind of movement is a “dynamic” exercise, which means you’ll actively use your muscles to move your body. “Dynamic exercises increase blood flow and decrease tissue and joint stiffness,” Louw explains.
Worried that you won’t have time to do something like this during the workday? If you work from home and you’re between virtual meetings, no one is going to know if you get out of your chair for a few minutes and do some stretches on your rug. And if you’re in an office, just find an empty conference room or the lounge and do the same. Maybe your coworkers will join in.
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Still lying down, lift one leg 60 to 90 degrees from the floor and hold it with both hands. Keep your other leg on the floor or position it with your knee bent and foot flat on the ground. With the leg that you’re holding, straighten and then bend your knee 15 to 20 times.
“This increases nerve mobility, particularly the sciatic nerve, and increases blood flow to the surrounding tissues, even up to the low back,” Louw says. (Your sciatic nerve branches out from the low back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg, and it can often cause inflammation or pain in the low back.)
This might not be one to do outside of your boss’s office (remote workers won’t have the same problem). But it’s great if you’re looking to alleviate back pain.
Angry cat: Get down on your hands and knees. Arch your back like an angry cat, holding the pose for two or three seconds, and then return to your starting position. Repeat the move 10 to 20 times.
If you’re worried about hurting your back — or you already have — start with these exercises and stretches. If your back pain persists or you find that you can’t move, it might be a sign of something more serious. In that case, you should consult your doctor.
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National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus. “Health Risks of an Inactive Lifestyle.” May 5, 2021. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/healthrisksofaninactivelifestyle.html#.
Yang, Lin, Cao, Chao, Kantor, Elizabeth, et al. “Trends in Sedentary Behavior Among the US Population, 2001-2016.” Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). April 2019. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2731178.