Exercise For Spine Health
Smart Training Beats Back Pain
As exercise reaches beyond the realm of pure athletics to include fitness fans everywhere, people have noticed that their efforts to stay in shape often are thwarted by back pain. That’s why knowledgeable trainers counsel that any well-designed workout must honor the health and mechanics of this important part of the body.
Dr. Karen Erickson, a New York City-based chiropractor and spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association, sees firsthand why alignment is crucial, especially if an individual has a history of back pain. “Good stability and good flexibility are the big factors for keeping the spine healthy,” she says. No matter what exercise modality one chooses to practice, Erickson advises beginning conservatively, as benefits can be achieved without pushing the level of difficulty.
Core Strength Counts
Developing muscle strength throughout the torso is key to maintaining the correct spinal curvature for a strong back. In addition to the muscles that directly attach to the spine, the spine is also stabilized by deep stomach strength, strong pelvic floor support and the upper thigh muscles. Pilates is well-known for its focus on such core conditioning.
“Pilates uses apparatus expressly designed for working the abdominals and the back,” explains Lolita San Miguel, from her studio in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “Most of our work is in the supine or prone positions [lying down], so that the vertical pull from gravity is lessened, and the body can be worked with a more correct alignment, and thus more effectively.” One of a small group of active practitioners who studied with Pilates method founder Joseph Pilates, San Miguel is a living testament to the benefits of the practice. When this 75-year-old isn’t doing her daily Pilates, she’s engaged in other physically demanding activities. “Pilates makes life sweet for the senior,” she says.
Despite well-meaning parental advice, it turns out that good posture entails more than just pulling our shoulders back. Alignment practices like Restorative Exercise and the Alexander Technique were designed to develop an awareness of full-body mechanics as we go about daily activities.
Annette Cantor-Groenfeldt teaches the Alexander Technique in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “The central theme of the technique is the spine, learning how to maintain length through the spine as you move,” she advises. “It is used extensively by actors, dancers, musicians and other high-performance people whose activities depend on postural alignment.”
In 2008, the Alexander Technique was the subject of a yearlong study published in the British Medical Journal, where it was shown to be effective in relieving low-back pain. The system focuses on both mental and physical aspects of movement, and usually includes passive treatments on the massage table, where the teaching practitioner manipulates the body to help release muscular tension.
Keeping spinal movements fluid and supple is also essential for keeping the discs of the spine healthy. Tai chi and the related qigong emphasize this kind of mobility.
"Many Tai chi students find that they can move some of their vertebrae, but others seem to be stuck, with several vertebrae moving as one,” reports Sound Beach, New York-based Tai chi Master Bob Klein. He explains, “In Tai chi, you become a master of moving the spine so that it almost seems devoid of bones, flowing and turning with ease, in exact coordination with the rest of the body.” Both Tai chi and qigong are gaining popularity among those who are looking to maximize a cardio-style workout, while minimizing impact on their bones and joints.
Yoga is a longtime favorite approach to maintaining both stability and flexibility through strong muscles and alignment. Ana Forrest used her hatha yoga practice to recover from an accident that seriously injured all the regions of her spine, and Forrest Yoga was born out of her retraining. “People spend 90 percent of their waking hours in positions that compress the spine—in how they sit, how they stand, even how they do backbends in yoga class,” she observes. “Part of a good yoga practice is to create length in the spine, create a feeling of spaciousness in the body.”
While Erickson considers herself a fan of all the exercise modalities listed here, she always emphasizes personal responsibility when it comes to back health. “Never do an exercise that causes you pain,” she offers as a rule of thumb. For long-term back health, she explains that chiropractic care is great for improving alignment and other back-related issues, yet is no substitute for daily exercise and self-care.
Michael Curran has credentials in psychology, ayurvedic medicine, and Restorative Exercise™. He is the director of Health and Wellness Media (www.HealthAndWellnessMedia.com).
Contacts: Karen Erickson at DrKarenErickson@msn.com; Ana Forrest at www.ForrestYoga.com; Bob Klein www.MovementsOfMagic.com; Lolita San Miguel at www.LolitaPilates.com; and Annette Cantor-Groenfeldt at 505-670-0474.