Healthy Backs

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. I don’t play one on TV. I’ve never flunked out med school. Take all this with a grain of salt, unless you have high blood pressure and then maybe a grain of sand. Don’t eat sand There’s fish pee in it. Probably dog pee, too. And toddler. Don’t eat sand. 

Way back in the day, I did gymnastics. I really liked the uneven bars, but I was terrible at tumbling because my back didn’t bend backward. I was also terrible at the balance beam because A) I was already too tall and B) this was before Baby Yoga and any suggestion on how to improve balance aside from “don’t fall over.” At almost-40, I could probably pull off a simplistic beam routine better than I did at 10, but now I kick things instead. Because I couldn’t do a backbend for begging or cash, and because the instructor got tired of moving the uneven bars just for me (all the other kids in class were normal sized instead of a runner up for the Jolly Green Giant), I got tossed from gymnastics. I can still cartwheel better than most of the six-year olds I know, so what did she know.

Anyway, turns out (turned out back when I was in my early twenties and someone finally figured it out), the reason I couldn’t do backbends was because my spine had its own ideas about where it should and shouldn’t bend.


Awesome, right? 

Turns out, my disc spaces aren’t bad (except the very last one down at the bottom). Despite my neck being too straight and, from the side, my spine’s too straight (clearly from the back, it’s not straight enough), all the other measures look good. My hips are even and overall, my doctor thinks it looks better than it did ten years ago.

She blames the karate.

And she might be onto something. In recent years, there have been a few studies that working muscles prevents bone breaks and osteoporosis better than drinking milk by the gallon, that pressure exerted by muscles pulling against bone makes the bone stronger. There have also been some studies that suggest getting up and moving is better for most bad backs than lying in bed taking pills. (This is something you’d need to talk to a doctor about because I’m not and because there’s a big difference between sore muscles and a cracked disc. “Bad” is relative and subjective.)

Some of you (me) might remember that the morning of the first degree black belt test, I woke up with my lower back shriveled and angry and spasm city. Normally when that happens, I do some sun salutations and go for a walk, then stretch out my hamstrings and low back. That always solves the problem for me. That morning I was a little panicked about A) time and B) wearing out my legs walking when I had to spend hours kicking and sparring and doing katas. There’s a chance I’m my chiropractor’s first patient to run in, after not having seen her in years, freaking out that I need to do jumping spin kicks in two hours. In retrospect, I’d have been fine with my usual methods, but I was also PMSy and in the middle of an attack of performance anxiety, so rational thought and I weren’t really on speaking terms.

I run in to a lot of kids at the dojo who aren’t very flexible. I run into a lot of adults at the dojo who aren’t very flexible. Adults have more socially-acceptable excuses for that, but most of them are my age or younger so “old” isn’t one of them. Why do I mention flexibility? Because it’s one of the easiest ways to keep the lower back happy.

So, here are the things I* do to keep that curvy mess of a back as close to healthy and functional as I can without pills and surgery: (*Note the “I.”)

  • Stretches. I stretch a lot. And you can too. You don’t have to use up your lunch hour for a yoga class or sign up for a complicated activity. Even if you don’t have but a minute at a time during the day and you don’t have more than 2-5 minutes at the beginning and end of your day, you can eventually touch your toes and keep your hamstrings and lower back all stretched out and happy.
    • 3-5 basic, traditional sun salutations when you get out of bed in the morning (or hiding in the bathroom from the kids before you shower). Go slow. Breathe. Don’t compete with anyone, including yourself. (NOTE: You may want to take a yoga class first to make sure you’re doing it right, but you don’t need to make it to one every day.) The forward bend is great for all the lower muscles and downward dog is great for waking up and for lengthening everything.
    • When you get up from your desk to go to the copier or the bathroom or a meeting or lunch or to scream angrily at the wall, grab the desk or shelf and fold halfway (so your back forms a table), pulling on the surface slightly to stretch out the shoulders and upper back. Then let go of the table and reach for the floor, slowly. Breathe once or twice  and stand. Suck in your gut and hold it until you get to  your destination. Then, get on with your shit.
    • Before bed, find a few basic back stretches that help your issue, whether it’s a simple forward bend or something more complicating.  Don’t get so out of control it feels like a burden and you won’t do it. Seriously, if it’s just reaching for your toes, that’s good. (Try Child Pose. I’ve yet to meet anyone who hated Child Pose. but if you’re that person, feel free to let me know.)
  • Alternate standing and sitting whenever you can and shift regularly when standing. If you aren’t allowed to stand in the corner during meetings and your job frowns on Tree Pose at the water color, you can probably still find a few ways to work standing more into your day. Maybe there’s a shelf near your cubicle that’s the perfect height to use as a standing desk while filling out forms or configuring your boss’s iPad. Maybe you have a shelf or empty box of copy paper you could prop your laptop up on part of the day. Maybe you can can incorporate an impromptu dance party in front of the microwave while your lunch spins instead of sitting to do two minutes more of work.
  • Minimize the heels. I still wear heels if I go out someplace fancy, but I generally wear lower ones when I need to “look professional” and I stick with flats or cowboy boots whenever possible.
  • Work your core. This isn’t about getting skinny or fitting into the pants you had in eighth grade. Strong core muscles help decrease the pressure on your lower back. And you can have a strong core under a layer of fat. The idea is to have good muscles, not compete with 11-year olds for runway work.
    • Working your core may mean different things to you than it does to me. You have a gym membership and fancy machine? Have at it. You want to do sit ups during commercials, enjoy. Me?
    • I’m a big fan of two things: Plank and standing straight with my gut sucked in whenever I think about it. Why? Because I don’t work around people who think it’s weird to get on the floor into plank while I’m waiting for food to heat up in the microwave or for a class to start or whatever. Because it’s free. Because it’s easy. Because I don’t have to make that much effort so it’s something I’ll do regularly. If I’m standing at my desk typing away, I’ll make a conscious effort to stand straight and suck everything in, to try to get everything to stay aligned until I get to the end of the paragraph, the end of the page.
  • Self massage. Yes, I know I could pay someone to do this, but I’m awful at actually doing that and while the husband rubs my back, his is entirely too normal to know what to do with the weird lumpy muscles. So if you ever catch my punching my lower back, don’t be alarmed, I’m just working out a kink. (Side note: the Primary series of Ashtanga is super-challenging, but at the end, I always feel like I’ve had a full-body massage. I do not recommend trying Ashtanga on your own for the first time, but if you’re going to, Kino MacGregor is maybe your best bet. She’s also great as an introduction to yoga overall, if you’re not intimidated by her.)

That’s it. Again, I am not A doctor, much less YOUR doctor. Your mileage may vary.  (I also do a lot of other random stuff, but I’m fairly certain jumping spin kicks on concrete and throwing medicine balls in the air aren’t good for the low back.)