Regular exercise is your most potent weapon against back problems. It can increase your aerobic capacity, improve your overall fitness, and help you shed the excess pounds that stress your back and put you at risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Proper exercise can help you:

  • Maintain or increase the flexibility of your muscles, tendons and ligaments
  • Strengthen the muscles that support your back
  • Increase muscle strength in your arms, legs and lower body
  • Improve your posture
  • Increase your bone density

Stretching and toning your back and other supporting muscles before you begin exercising can help reduce wear and tear on your back. Stretching reduces your risk of injury by warming up your muscles. Over time, it increases your flexibility.

Strength training can make your arms, legs and lower body stronger. In turn, your risk of falls and other injuries decreases. Strong arms, legs and especially abdominal muscles also help relieve back strain. If you have osteoporosis, back-strengthening exercises may help prevent additional compression fractures.

GETTING STARTED

Ask your doctor or a physical therapist for advice before beginning an exercise program, especially if you've hurt your back before or you have other health problems, such as significant osteoporosis. Then follow these general suggestions:

  • Start slowly.

    If you're out of condition from lack of activity, your back muscles may be weak and susceptible to injury. Pace yourself and don't overdo it. Increase your workout time as you become stronger.

  • Make smart moves.

    Generally, swimming and other water exercises are safest for your back. Because they're nonweight bearing, these activities place minimal strain on your lower back. Workouts on a stationary bike, treadmill or cross-country ski machine are less jarring to your back than running on hard surfaces. Bicycling is a good option, too. But be sure to adjust the heights of the seat and handlebars so that you assume proper posture while pedaling. If you golf, protect your back by warming up well and stretching so that you're prepared for the full range of motion required.

  • Avoid high-risk moves.

    Avoid movements that cause you to exaggerate the stretch of your muscles. For example, don't try to touch your toes with your legs straight. Activities that involve a lot of twisting, quick stops and starts, and impact on hard surfaces, such as tennis, racquetball, basketball and contact sports, pose the greatest risk to your back.

If you’re over 40 or have an illness or injury, check with your doctor before you begin an exercise program. If you’re out of condition, start slowly and increase gradually. Exercises that are good for your back include the following:

  • Abdominal and leg-strengthening exercises.
  • Nonjarring exercise on a stationary bike, treadmill or cross-country skiing machine.

BACK-SAVING BODY MECHANICS

To practice sound body mechanics, pay attention to how you move. By maintaining your spine's normal curves throughout daily activity, you reduce your risk of back strain.

Use these tips to help prevent injuries and use your back wisely:

  • Plan ahead.

    Think through and reorganize your work or leisure activities to eliminate high-risk movements.

  • Listen to your body.

    If your back hurts, stop what you're doing and rest. If you must sit or stand for a prolonged period, change your position often. Avoid unnecessary bending, twisting and reaching.

  • Prevent falls.

    Falls can seriously injure your back, especially if you have osteoporosis.

  • Stand tall.

    Poor posture is exhausting work for your back. Good posture is more relaxing. It takes minimal effort to balance your body and maintain the three natural curves in your back. Good posture helps you lift and carry things safely and more comfortably.

  • Sit comfortably.

    Sitting is stressful to your back. To minimize stress, choose a seat that supports your lower back. Place a pillow or a rolled towel in the small of your back if necessary to maintain its normal curve. When you drive, adjust your seat to keep your knees and hips level. Move your seat forward to avoid overreaching for the pedals.

  • Sleep smart.

    Lie in a good position on a firm mattress. Use pillows for support, but don't use one that forces your neck up at a severe angle.

  • Lift with your legs.

    Before you lift something heavy, decide where you'll place it and how you'll get there. Pushing is safer than pulling. Always bend your knees so that your arms are level with the object. Avoid lifting overhead. Use a footstool to reach high objects. Place heavy objects on casters.

KEEP YOUR BACK STRONG AND HEALTHY

Take stock of your back and how you use it. Then invest in prevention — regular exercise, healthy weight, good posture and, perhaps most important, back-saving lifting techniques.

If you have periodic bouts of back pain, remember to rest and use heat or ice for the pain. You can also take an over-the-counter pain reliever for temporary discomfort. This type of simple self-care together with sensible daily living can help keep you and your back strong, healthy partners.

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