Back pain causes the loss of 100 million working days a year, but you don’t need complicated exercise regimes to prevent or halt the damage, just a few tweaks to your day help, says A-list osteopath Barrie Savory
More than 60 per cent of Brits report regular back pain.
But according to A-list Barrie Savory, author of best-selling book The Good Back Guide and osteopath to the likes of Sean Connery, Eddie Izzard and Emma Thompson, it’s not dangerous movements like heavy lifting or a dodgy gym move that can bring on irreversible back pain, but how we move through our every day lives.
From the way we get out of bed in the morning, travel to work and sit at our desks, to the way we carry our handbags and watch TV, it’s the repetitive movements we put our bodies through every day that could cause us back pain now, and hunches come our fourth or fifth decades.
And the best news? There are no hard-to-learn exercises, just some tweaks to your everyday life to ensure you stay back pain-free for as long as possible.
Some days you may not manage all the back-proofing tips we have here but even if you do just one, you’ll be taking a step in preventing back pain in the future and reducing any you have now.
Rise and Shine:
6.30am Wake up
Believe it or not, this is a dangerous time. Your body has been horizontal for seven or more hours so you need to ease it into uprightness slowly.
What to do? Quick pelvic squeezes: Turn onto your back, facing the ceiling with knees bent. Simply squeeze your pelvic floor muscles (imagine you’re trying really hard to hold in a wee) and gently roll tilt your pelvis about upwards about an inch.
Do this tiny, controlled move ten times, breathing deeply.
6.35am Get out of bed
Don’t get up willy-nilly, arms dangling everywhere. Even if you don’t have back problems, but especially if you do this puts incredible strain on your lower back.
What to do? Turn on your side: Make it the side you’re getting up from. Bend your knees to 90 degrees. Now, with the lower leg hanging over the side of the bed, push up with your left arm, letting the weight of your lower body pivot you to a sitting position.
6.40am Stretch and stand
Your spine is the biggest, most used part of your body yet it’s rarely exercised. Do this easy two-minute spine stretch every morning.
What to do? Dog stretches: This is a little like the Downward Dog in yoga but your knees stay on the ground throughout. Get on all fours, hands placed a little in front of your shoulders, keeping elbows locked.
Gently drop your back and hips downwards then lift your back into an extension, also stretching your neck by looking upwards. Hold that for five seconds then smoothly lift your bottom and try to sit back on your heels.
Rest there for five seconds and repeat this cycle ten times.
7.40am Putting on make-up
Most back pain is ligamentous, that means it’s a result of your body’s insufficient strength in holding itself up! The key rests not in your actual spinal cord, but in the muscle and ligaments that support it.
That’s why, perhaps surprisingly the most important muscular areas in your body are the core muscles comprising your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles; the ‘corset’ of muscles that surround your lower back.
A big part of back-proofing your day will be about strengthening these, but don’t worry, they’re subtle and easy – no one will even know you’re exercising.
What to do? The two orifices exercise: Oddly but memorably named, you can do this anywhere. As you stand, try to squeeze your tummy against your spine while keeping your back straight. Also tighten the cheeks of your bottom and ‘hold’ your bladder.
It should feel as if you’re lifting your whole pelvic floor and as if your pelvic floor muscles are holding you round the pelvis in a tight hug. Hold this for as long as you can, let go and relax for a few seconds.
Keep it going as long as you’re applying make-up.
7.45am Cleaning teeth
This is a good time to work on your proprioception. That’s simply a fancy word for the way you move through space – balance, body control and grace are all down to it.
What to do? Quick balance exercise: Simply stand balanced on one leg for a couple of seconds and then the other. Keeping your back straight and core muscles tight will help you balance.
Keep going until you finish brushing your teeth.
Getting to work:
8.05am Walking to the station or bus stop
Those Jimmy Choo’s look beautiful but they tend to make your lower-back tilt inwards, which can cause damage later. If you’re wearing heels, try and keep your core muscles just slightly engaged.
Simply engaging your core can help avert this. If you’re holding a handbag, try and swap sides regularly to avoid straining your spine to one side.
8.15am Standing at the platform
Do the Two Orifices Exercise again, holding your pelvic floor as long as you can and letting go as you wait. The more you do this the more you build up you’re your key back pain-prevention muscles.
8.25am Sitting on the bus, tube or train (or in the car stuck at traffic lights)
You can do the Two Orifices yet again and just as well sitting as standing. Sit well back in your seat and sit as upright as possible, keeping shoulders down.
Perfect posture is like a fingerprint – everyone will have their own. But there are some guidelines that will help you find yours
In the office:
9.00am – 5.30pm – General tips for sitting at your desk
This is probably the worst thing we can do in our daily routine. In sitting, the lower back takes the entire load, unsupported, for the rest of the body.
Just think about it: around two-thirds of your body weight is compressing the discs at the base of the spine and there’s no muscular support.
Throughout your day, take some steps to change this:
Tip #1 Get the right chair
I love the kneeling chair, but it can be tiring to sit in for long periods. Try and convince your company to invest in one per floor and take turns swapping it for your usual chair for half an hour each day.
It’s incredible for strengthening the core muscles and training your upper body to keep itself upright instead of slouching.
For a cheaper alternative, simply place a rolled up towel between the base of your back and the chair.
Tip #2 Take the stairs
Stair climbing is not only great exercise for your body, it’s also great for your balance, which makes it essential to strong back muscles.
Try and go to the loo one floor up and tell yourself the lift is out of action all the time.
Tip #3 Do shoulder shrugs
This is so simple but the benefits are huge. Every half an hour or so, do a few shoulder shrugs. They help remind the upper back that the rightful place for shoulders is down, not around your ears.
After each shrug, try to let the shoulders rest in a relaxed position and let the weight of your head slowly drop forward so you can stretch the back of your neck and then gently rotate the head from side to side for a few moments. Do this at least twice hourly.
Tip #4 Stand up properly
Sitting compresses the chest, which in turn pushes the back into a hunched, sloping position that it needs to be actively withdrawn from. Simply standing up just won’t do it.
Instead, each time you get up, be it to go to the loo or to see a colleague or pick up a fax, clasp your hands behind your back, stretch the hest out and try and make the shoulder blades meet at the back.
Walking is the most back-friendly exercise you can do, if you can fit in just 20 minutes a day at lunchtime, you’ll be helping both your back and your body in general.
1:00pm – 5.30pm – Specific tips for post-lunch desk time
Hourly – stretch the neck muscles
Tension there leads to poor blood supply into the base of the brain and a feeling of tiredness, that’s why it’s essential to keep stretching these muscles after lunch. Let the chin simply roll forward and take five deep breaths. Try and do this hourly.
Mid-afternoon – Mind the mouse
The most common RSI I see today is in the forearm as a result of that dreaded mouse. Relax your grip on it. Mid-afternoon, briefly massage the muscles in your mouse arms forearm. Try also to work with your forearm supported by the desk.
End of the day – Do the Cossack move
To help decongest your chest after a day’s spend sitting, cross your arms directly in front of your eye line like a Cossack dancer and then move them slightly in and out about three inches, while keeping them crossed. Do this ten times at the very end of your working day.
On the way home:
5.30pm -6.30pm: Commuter breathing
Tightening your core muscles breathe deeply into your belly and hold the breath for three seconds, keeping shoulders down. Do this ten times to help diffuse the stresses of the day.
6.30pm – 7.30pm: Exercise (optional)
If you head for the gym after work, any exercise will benefit your back but whatever your doing, remember to engage your core so as not to strain your spine. The most back-friendly gym exercises also incorporate elements of balance such as the stair climber, cross trainer and core stability training.
Varying your workout too, will ensure all your ligaments are worked equally. More recently in the States inflatable and foam rollers are replacing the Swiss ball as core training devices.
Try using: inflatable and foam rollers.
8.30pm – 10.30pm: Watching telly with the family
Rest: You’ve earned this time to relax and that includes serious ‘sofa time’. But instead of slouching, try and lie flat if you can, or sit upright. Slouching halfway between sitting and lying creates a crooked shape in the back and is bad news for spines.
If you get back pain already, try and alternate your time on the sofa with short periods spent sitting on the floor, your back flat against the sofa’s arm (this is actually more relaxing than it sounds).
Check your bed: If you regularly wake up with bed pain, it’s likely your bed is at fault. More often that means your bed is too soft and causing your spine to become misshapen for all those hours you’re asleep.
The Tempur Mattress from £1525 for doubles has a great texture but a good bed needn’t be that expensive. When shopping for a bed, simply test for one that has a squishy surface but is firm and supportive underneath and buy the best you can afford.
7.30pm – 9.30pm: Drinks, Avoid Cocktail Party Syndrome
When you’re out drinking and chatting, it’s tempting to lean your weight on one leg but this is one of the worst things you can do if you get lower back pain after standing for long periods.
It can, if done regularly enough, lead to the appearance of having one leg slightly longer than the other (visible fortunately only to the trained eye but very, very common). I call this Cocktail Party Syndrome.
Try and avoid it by, as you clutch your glass of champagne – doing your Two Orifices exercise (see above) at key intervals throughout the evening, taking care also, to keep your weight firmly in both your feet.
No one need know you’re engaging your ‘wee muscles’ while you engage their conversation.
What’s perfect posture, really?
Perfect posture is like a fingerprint – everyone will have their own.
But there are some guidelines that will help you find yours: Balance your weight evenly on both your feet and keep knees very slightly bent, engage your core muscles by pulling the stomach into the spine.
Keep the lower back relaxed, not too stiff or too curved and pull the shoulders down and back (but too too far). Keep your chin up and imagine someone is pulling you upwards from an imaginary piece of string at the crown of your head. Then, relax into it!
From the core up the principles are the same for when you’re sitting, just keep your legs bent at right angles to the floor, this might require you to use a footrest if your legs are short (a pile of big books is often enough), in order that your lower back is fully supported by the back of your chair.