More than 40% of the population is affected by back pain. It is the second most common reason for missing work in the UK and it can come about from minor activities such as emptying the dishwasher or putting a child into a car seat; even sneezing ...
One of the most important things you can do is consider your posture. Your alignment is one of the key factors in keeping a strong back. When your body is in its ideal alignment, you limit wear and tear of the joints in the spine and throughout the body. You will start to achieve muscular balance, which is vital for the prevention of injury.
Facing side-on, stand in front of a full-length mirror. Starting with your feet, ensure the weight is balanced between the heels and toes, and between the inner and outer borders of the feet. Check knees, making sure they are soft, not bent and not pushed back. Next, balance your pelvis (hips) over your ankles, making sure it is not swayed forward towards your toes, and keep your tailbone dropped straight down towards the ground. This will aid your lower back in aligning with a gentle curve (not flat or overarched).
Bring your awareness up to your shoulders and rib cage. Feel open across your collarbones and wide across the back of your shoulders. Feel the ribcage dropping downwards from the shoulders, not caved in or pushed forward, thus facilitating relaxed breathing.
Moving to the neck and head, imagine you are wearing a crown and right in the centre of that crown is a line of energy travelling upwards. Keep that line of energy charged and active throughout the day, whether you are standing, sitting, walking or driving. (Beware of lifting from the forehead; this will cause the neck to overarch, which can cause neck pain and headaches.)
For ideal alignment, view your side profile and visualise a straight line running down the side of your body. The outside tip of the ankle joints, knee joints, hip line, shoulders and ear should all fall close to that line. With practice this will become easier. Should you wish for assistance in finding your ideal alignment, physiotherapists, Pilates, Alexander technique, yoga and Feldenkrais teachers offer training in alignment.
When practising your posture, gently pull in your stomach about 30%. This is a simple exercise to protect your back. When pulling your stomach in you activate your deepest abdominal muscles, tranversus abdominus, one of the most important muscles involved in core stability.
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Just by holding in your stomach as often as you can in daily life you are building the strength that is important in back care. Try putting a few post-its up in key places around the house to remind you to practise when brushing your teeth, preparing dinner or working at a desk.
Many of us are deskbound or have jobs that involve repetitive movements. If this is the case for you, then frequently stand up to stretch. Move each joint; bend your knees; circle your shoulders, arms and wrists, and get the spine moving.
In addition to concentrating on your posture, exercise is an excellent way of preventing back pain and reducing any you might already have. Swimming and walking are great activities for building strength. Activities like Pilates, yoga, Tai Chi and qigong can help improve flexibility, strength and posture.
Taking the time to form good habits of alignment, core strength and being mindful of your daily activity will ensure that you remain supple, healthy and pain-free. BY LIZ CHANDLER
Liz Chandler is a qualified Pilates teacher of the Pilates Foundation and Body Control Pilates. She runs classes at Pure Moves, Wesley Lower School, Frome, BA11 3AE, www.puremoves.com. She has also produced a Pilates DVD for people over 50, www.realpeoplepilates.co.uk. For more information about Back Care Awareness Week, organised by the charity BackCare, visit www.backcare.org.uk.