5 Easy Ways to Take Better Care of Your Back
If you're glued to a desk for eight hours a day or stand for long periods at work, then you're probably no stranger to back pain. Just about everyone experiences this type of pain at some point. In fact, back pain is the "second most common neurological ailment in the United States, with Americans spending at least $50 billion a year on low back pain," according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
It really doesn't take much to trigger a backache. Simple activities like twisting the body or lifting a heavy object can have you laid up in bed. And while back pain can point to a medical condition, such as a bulging disc, spinal degeneration, osteoporosis or spinal tumors, most backaches are acute and improve within a few weeks. (See also: Ways Your Sleeping Position May Be Hurting You)
Sometimes, getting rid of pain — or avoiding it altogether — is a matter of taking better care of your back.
1. Get Active
If you're a couch potato who prefers channel surfing over any type of physical activity, don't be surprised when you develop chronic back pain. Exercise is key to strengthening the muscles in your body, and your back muscles are no exception. These muscles become weak when you're stagnant, and with weak back muscles, you're more susceptible to strains.
There is a simple fix — increase your activity level. Not that you have to transform into a workout junkie. But if you can incorporate 20 to 30 minutes of activity most days of the week, you're on the right track.
It doesn't need to be strenuous activities, just something to strengthen your core and back muscles. Activities might include yoga, Pilates, swimming, walking, light resistance training, or low-impact aerobics. (See also: 20 Great Body Weight Exercises)
2. Practice Good Posture
Old habits are hard to break. And if you're accustomed to slouching in your chair or standing with your shoulders hunched, standing and sitting tall might feel awkward. But there are undeniable benefits to "straightening up."
Bad posture strains your muscles and joints, and this constant strain can trigger chronic backaches, as well as neck pain, headaches, and tendonitis. Good posture, however, keeps the spine properly aligned and balanced, decreasing stress on ligaments and preventing muscle strains.
What can you do?
Practice sitting with your feet flat on the floor. If sitting at a desk, adjust the height of the chair to prevent feet dangling, or use a footrest. Keep your spine straight and your shoulders back. Don't slouch over your desk. (See also: 5 Ways to Improve Your Posture)
Good posture also applies when standing. Make a conscious effort to keep your feet shoulder-width apart, your knees slightly bent and your shoulders pulled back.
3. Lose Weight
Dropping a few pounds can not only improve your health and the way you feel about yourself, it can also relieve back pain. Some people fail to see the connection between weight and back pain. However, "every extra pound in the abdominal region could put 10 pounds more stress on the lower back," says Dr. Luigi DiRubba, a chiropractor and President of the Connecticut Chiropractic Council.
If you believe weight is the underlying cause of your back pain, talk with your doctor and discuss a healthy weight for your height. Take steps to drop excess weight. You never know, as little as five to ten pounds could make a difference. Choosing a healthy diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and nonfat dairy foods is a good start, as well as drinking plenty of water and getting regular physical activity. Dr. DiRubba suggests eating in moderation and taking brief 15- to 20-minute walks after a big meal. (See also: 25 Reasons to Take a Walk)
4. Watch How You Lift
Learning the right way to lift heavy items can also reduce backaches. It's tempting to lean forward and lift an item with your back. But this way does more harm than good.
To avoid straining your spine and back muscles, always bend at your knees. After you have a firm grip on the item, lift with your legs. Tighten your abdominal muscles as you lift and keep the object close to your body. Do not lean forward. And while you may take pride in the ability to do things without assistance from others, just know that a thrown out back is no picnic. With that said, ask for help if an item is too heavy.
5. Take Care of Your Feet
Taking care of your back starts with taking care of your feet. This only makes sense considering how your feet support your body. They are your foundation, and if your shoes don't provide the right kind of support, the effects can be felt all over your back.
For example, high heels might be your shoes of choice, but according to Dr. John M. Giurini, Chief of the Division of Podiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, "high heels can throw off your alignment. They change the center of gravity, causing extra stress and strain on the lower back."
And don't think you're doing your back a favor by switching from heels to flip-flops. "Flip-flops actually change the way your foot strikes the ground," says Annie Malone, a physical therapist for an outpatient rehabilitation provider in Chicago. "Your back will often take the brunt of those unnatural muscle movements."
Of course, nobody is suggesting that you never wear another pair of high heels or flip-flops. Shoes that don't offer the best support might be appropriate at times, such as flip-flops at the beach or pool. But these shoes shouldn't be your everyday, normal footwear. For a healthier back and less pain, choose shoes that offer the best comfort and arch support — preferably flat shoes or sneakers. If you go with a heel, keep it around one or one-half inch.
Do you have more easy ways to take better care of your back? Let me know in the comments below.