Many of us suffer from an achy back at some point in our lives. And while we may aim to fix it with an hour of physical therapy, it’s really about the other 23 hours in the day.
I came to this realization after 20 years of searching near and far for the best exercises and therapies to alleviate my own back pain. Suddenly, I realized I had completely ignored the influence of how my entire day and typical daily habits affected my back. I came to recognize that the ability to change how my back felt was a minute-by-minute, daily awareness of my habits — not necessarily a magic exercise I could do once a day.
These four tools will help you gain freedom of movement — and hopefully ease your aching back.
1. NOTICE YOUR POSTURE
Check out how you stand and sit — what’s your posture like? Then see if you can improve any of the aspects of your standing and sitting posture. Is your pelvis drifting forward when you stand? Bring it back over your heels. Is your head tilted in front of your shoulders? Gently bring it back to an aligned position. Just asking yourself “How am I sitting or standing? And can I find a more aligned and effortless position?” will bring great shifts.
2. BREATHE WITH YOUR ENTIRE RIB CAGE
Once you are more aligned, pay attention to how you’re breathing. First, relax your jaw, shoulders and torso, and allow breath to come in effortlessly. Then as you breathe, focus on a full expansion of your rib cage — breathe sideways into your ribs, back into your low back and give the shoulders and neck a break. As you exhale, allow yourself to fully exhale before you take your next breath.
3. MOVE YOUR SPINE
Movement will ensure that you get blood flow, clear metabolic waste and avoid unnecessary guarding strategies, which often create their own cycle of pain. The more you feel your spine, the better chance you have of being able to coordinate muscles when it’s time to lift, twist, chop, punch, run, skip or sprint.
Notice whether you are fearful of moving your spine and what your strategies are to keep it stiff. Find gentle movements — such as cat-cow stretches or slow curling and uncurling your spine while lying on your side — and explore them slowly. Only move into the zone of slight discomfort, staying with a sense of safety in your body, and watch how you can do more each time. Make sure you stay connected to your breathing as you explore slow flexion and extension of your spine, staying relaxed and peaceful. You can do this several times a day or as a warmup to your exercise routine.
4. SIT LESS
If your job or studies require you to sit for long hours, set a timer to remind yourself to get up every 60 minutes or so. This will help the deep muscles that attach to the spine stay supple and moving. It’s enough to walk for a couple of minutes, but if you have time to include an active break (such as stretching your calves, hamstrings, glutes and chest muscles), that would be the best complement to your break. When you sit down again, check that you are keeping your back straight in the most effortless and supported way, and make sure that your pelvis and feet provide good grounding and stability. Then return to your work tasks with your full energy and focus.