Ever had back problems? You’re not alone: Four out of five women will experience pain bad enough to see a doctor, skip work or swear off stiletto heels for good. Don’t fall victim to the odds. Try these surprisingly simple and effective techniques and stay ache-free.
- Shift Into Neutral
Your spine is meant to be in a neutral position — with a moderate inward curve in the lower back and a moderate outward curve in the upper back. “Teach” it how to stay put: Stand with your back, shoulders and heels against a wall and place one hand behind your back, feeling the slight curve in your spine. “Do this posture check a few times a day to set your back in neutral,” advises Douglas Brooks, an exercise physiologist in northern California.
- Sit Properly
Even the simple act of sitting can put a great deal of stress on the lower spine. To reduce this pressure, keep your hips and knees flexed at a 90-degree angle and sit up tall. Placing the balls of your feet about shoulder-width apart on a one- or two-inch footrest will also help prevent you from slouching, says Gayle Jasinski, a chiropractor with the Texas Back Institute in Plano. If you have a desk job, take a posture break every half hour by standing, stretching or walking around for one or two minutes. Can’t stop working? Take phone calls standing up.
- Lighten Up
Do you really need to haul around two magazines, one PDA, a liter of water, a cell phone and five lipsticks every time you leave the house? Women who carry more than five to 10 pounds on one shoulder risk getting aches in their upper back from the weight, says Jasinski. Reduce your burden by determining what’s critical to carry, then split it into two relatively even loads and carry a bag on each shoulder. Better yet, wear a backpack (slipped over both shoulders and hugging the center of your back) to transfer much of the weight onto your stronger upper-back muscles.
- Do the Single-Leg Lift
We’ve all been told to squat when we need to bend over, but most of us ignore the advice because the movement feels unnatural. Instead, when you pick up light objects (like a stray shoe or a toy), lift one leg a couple of inches behind you as you bend over and contract your abs, says Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada and author of Low-Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation (Human Kinetics, 2002). To lift heavier objects, such as a basket of laundry, it’s still best to squat first, holding the object close to your body. And remember to tighten your abs in this position for added back protection.
- Warm Up Your Spine
Whether you’re about to step onto the tennis court or are waiting for an exercise class to begin, reduce the stiffness of your back (and protect your spine from injury) by warming up with a cat/camel exercise. Start on all fours on the floor, then slowly arch your back up like a cat; slowly arch down, keeping abdominals tightened throughout. For the safest and most effective stretch, think about gently moving the spine rather than jerking into the arches. Repeat eight times.
- Stretch Your Hamstrings
Tight hamstrings pull the pelvis out of alignment, which can lead to backaches, says Brooks. To keep yours more flexible, stretch daily. Lie on your back with legs extended. Lift your right leg and pull it toward you, holding on to your calf. (If you’re especially tight, use a sash or yoga strap.) Hold the stretch for 10 seconds and release. Do four to 10 times, then switch legs.