Roughly 80 percent of American adults experience lower back pain at some point in their lives. This is not just a private, ugh-this-sucks type of inconvenience, either—this country loses an estimated 149 million days of work per year to its achy lumbar regions. If your back isn’t bothering you right now, it probably will at some point or another, since the condition can be triggered by everything from spending too much time sitting down to ill-advised attempts at lifting moving boxes you were sure you could handle by yourself.
Ah, the joys of human fragility. The good news is that this brand of nagging discomfort doesn’t have to rule your life. Call your own shots by following these four laws for bettering your back.
1. Kick it into neutral
A healthy spine has three segments—the cervical (neck), thoracic (middle), and lumbar (lower)—that form three separate natural curves. Keeping a “neutral” spine means that you’re maintaining those natural curves as they are, not emphasizing one more than the other. Think of your spine like you would a night out at the bar: Every time you move or sit with the spine not in a neutral position, you take a shot. You’re a tough guy, so a few shots here and there aren’t going to ruin things. But when you add in external loads, or hunch over too far for too long, or do something that otherwise contorts your body into a position it isn’t used to, that’s like chugging straight from a bottle of Macallan. Now you have a headache (or, here, a backache).
The goal, then, is maintaining that all-important neutral positioning as much as possible, especially when you’re lifting heavy things. “Keeping the spine neutral helps disperse loads throughout the entire back,” says Cameron Yuen, DPT, CSCS, a senior physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. Plus, it will allow your glutes to do more of the work involved in lifting, which is ideal, since they are some of the strongest muscles in the body.
2. Stop binging Jessica Jones
As if you needed an excuse to spend some more time in between the sheets, sleep is especially important for treating existing aches and staving off back pain altogether. That’s because it’s your best opportunity for recovery, says Katie Harper, DPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke. Harper’s easy-to-implement strategy: Sleep one hour more than you think you should. In other words, turn off Netflix before you get to that pass-out-on-the-couch stage. The show will still be there tomorrow.
3. Clean out the fridge
It may not be the most intuitive solution, but what you eat can affect your back just as much as it can cause a case of late-afternoon indigestion. Whole-body inflammation is a real thing, and if you are taking in foods that inflame your gut—think refined carbohydrates like white bread, rice, and pasta, along with fried foods and fatty meats—that can put unnecessary stress on your joints, says Bespoke Treatments co-owner Dan Giordano, DPT, CSCS. “If you have chronic or even acute back pain, start by adjusting what foods you take in,” he suggests. Look for options that are high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols, which give the body’s defense systems a hand by helping to negate the damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals.
Good sources for these natural pain fighters include leafy vegetables like spinach, collard greens, and kale; foods high in unsaturated fat, like almonds, walnuts, and fatty fish; and fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges. Tomatoes and olive oil are great, too. Caprese salad is your friend here.
4. Gyms aren’t just for glamour muscles
Back pain is often a result of problems elsewhere in the body. If you’re a runner, for instance, tight hips and a weak core can cause your back to overcompensate and take on way too much of the load. By strengthening the muscle groups that support the spine, you can put yourself in the best position should you have the misfortune of being assigned to a middle seat on your next cross-country flight.
This need not be a particularly arduous task. Take five extra minutes at the gym and incorporate this circuit into your regular routine. Do three rounds three times a week, performing each exercise for 45 seconds.
What: Begin on your hands and knees. Align your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees, like a tabletop. Take a slow inhale, and on the exhale, round your spine and drop your head towards the floor. In yoga, that’s cat pose. Next, inhale and lift your head, chest, and tailbone towards the ceiling as you arch your back. That’s cow pose.
Why: If you stand or walk most of the day, this position functions as a back extension. Introducing light movement like these to an aching back unloads the spine and restores movement in a plane in which we usually stay still.
What: Start on your hands and knees, keeping them shoulder-width apart. Lift your knees off the ground and push your feet back, bringing your body to full extension. Make sure your shoulders are over your wrists and your core is engaged. Aim to hold this position for 30 to 45 seconds, and then do side planks on the right and the left. The side plank can be performed either on your forearm or your hand. Just stack your feet one on top of the other, keeping them both flexed. Brace through the core, and lift your hips high, maintaining a straight line from shoulder to heel.
Why: Planks entail minimal movement but contract all layers of the core, helping to strengthen the muscles that surround the source of back pain.
Isometric transverse abdominis push
What: A complicated name for a simple movement. Lie face up on the floor with your feet up in the air, hips and knees bent at 90 degrees. Engage your core so that your lower back presses into the floor. Without straining the neck, lift your head off the floor and place your palms on your knees. Press your hands into your knees, which should be providing light resistance. Hold that position, maintaining that knee resistance, for 30 seconds.
Why: The transverse abdominis is the body’s natural weight belt. Strengthening it stabilizes the lower back and pelvis prior to movement, helping to improve motor control—which, now that you have earned a stronger and healthier back, won’t be an issue anymore. (Hopefully.)