Self-care for your back

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by Ashley Talmadge

Relaxed smiling gray haired woman standing on treadmill.

How’s your back? Exercises that promote a healthy range of motion are key to preventing back trouble. ©Adobe Stock

You’re the backbone of your family – skilled at countless trades, and a tireless supporter through thick and thin. But don’t forget to give your own back some tender loving care.

In a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control, almost a third of women said they’d experienced back pain within the last three months. When your back is not happy, it impacts your ability to work, play and even sleep. Support your spine with this advice from the experts.

Nurture bones with good nutrition.
Though we may think of back pain and osteoporosis as maladies of middle age, the foundation for a healthy spine is erected much earlier in life. Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) Alan Cohn says, “For women, peak bone mass is reached by age 30. After that there’s a decline, with a decidedly steeper curve of bone loss occurring after menopause.” Therefore, it’s important to boost the “bone bank” well before 30 with a diet rich in calcium, including foods such as dairy, almonds and leafy greens like kale.

Vitamin D also contributes to strong bones. However, Cohn notes it’s difficult to get enough Vitamin D through diet alone. In addition, as we age we’re less efficient at converting Vitamin D into its active form via exposure to sunlight. “Most people require supplements or fortified foods to meet the recommended daily allowance,” says Cohn.

Be sure to get out of your seat for a couple minutes every half hour. Do some stretches or walk to the water fountain.

Disorders that prevent absorption of nutrients, such as celiac and Crohn’s disease, may have a negative impact on bone density when the condition goes untreated. It should also be noted eating disorders and repeated dieting, especially in adolescence, can prevent accrual of healthy bone mass. Being underweight is a risk factor for osteoporosis. Cohn suggests, “ Pay attention to your family history along with your personal risk factors and take action now. What’s good for your general health is good for your bones: eat well, exercise and maintain a normal weight.”

Pay attention to position.
Dale Mendenhall is a physical therapist specializing in orthopedic musculoskeletal conditions. He says back pain and injury often result from remaining in one position for too long. “Any postural position that becomes habitual can be problematic,” he says. “People understand that sitting at a desk for hours isn’t good, but standing for too long can be detrimental as well.”

The answer? Change positions frequently. For sedentary work, best practice is to follow the “20-8-2 rule.” That is, every 30-minute period should include 20 minutes seated, 8 minutes standing (easier if a standing desk is available) and 2 minutes walking. If this is impossible, be sure to get out of your seat for a couple minutes every half hour. Do some stretches or walk to the water fountain.

Ergonomics at your desk are also important. While seated, there should be a 90 degree angle at your elbows, hips and knees. Your monitor should be positioned directly in front of you, and your line of sight maintained without tilting your chin up or down. Keep your feet flat on the floor and your wrists neutral.

Exercise is important for every body.
Personal trainer Joel Singer helps clients of all ages meet their fitness goals. He says people with sedentary jobs tend to suffer back trouble due to the weakening of spine-supporting musculature. “The key to a healthy back and excellent posture is including exercises that focus on maintaining a healthy range of motion and support the strengthening of key postural muscles,” says Singer. Weight bearing activities such as walking, running and yoga are essential for maintaining bone density. In addition, exercises such as planking, squatting and rowing can be beneficial. These target the glutes, transverse abdominals and muscles surrounding the thoracic spine.

Mendenhall adds it’s important to make an active lifestyle normative from childhood on. “Kids and adolescents should be encouraged to play hard, run and jump,” he says. “Into adulthood, high intensity exercise has been shown to be the most beneficial, unless a person has already been diagnosed with low bone density.”

After an injury or post-diagnosis of a condition such as osteoporosis, some people may be fearful of exercise. And yet, research shows inactivity actually increases recuperation time and can lead to further deterioration. Mendenhall acknowledges it’s important to remain active, but says guidance from an experienced professional is crucial in such cases. Certain types of exercise may be contraindicated and cause further injury.

For some, it’s simply difficult to find a starting point. Singer’s strategy? “I help clients set both long and short term goals that are tangible,” he says. “This encourages them to focus on what is right in front of them, rather than get overwhelmed by what’s to come.”

Most important for a healthy back? Good habits, practiced daily. As Cohn reminds us, “A doctor, physical therapist or other provider can be a good source of information and can help establish a good pattern, but consistent self-care is most important for spine health.”

Ashley Talmadge writes frequently on health topics from her home in Portland, Oregon.

Give High Heels the Heave-ho!
Most women wear high heels, at least occasionally. But frequent multi-hour stints in sky-high stilettos can lead to foot, leg and back problems. Wearing high heels:
Changes the natural curve of the spine, forcing weight to come forward.
Shortens calf muscles.
Strains hips and lower back.
Can cause spondylolisthesis (one vertebra slipping over another), and nerve problems including sciatica.
Can’t give them up? Follow these suggestions:
Avoid super-pointy toes
Stretch your calf muscles often
Don’t wear heels for long periods of time
Heels under two inches are best
Vary your footwear daily

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