Lower back pain is very common and increases in frequency with age. Many people start experiencing back pain in their 30’s and 40’s. Fortunately, exercise helps most people with back pain feel better. More specifically, functional exercise that includes core strengthening and stretching gets people back to the activities they enjoy.
Why core strengthening helps back pain
The core is the muscles in the abdomen and back. The core muscles support and protect the spine. If the core muscles are working correctly, fewer injury-inducing forces are transmitted to the back. This means fewer back injuries and less back pain. One key core muscle is the transverse abdominis or TVA. Studies have shown that the TVA works reflexively to protect the spine with movement. Core strengthening improves reflexive function.
Practice activating the core
To activate the TVA muscle, pull the belly button in towards the spine. Practice doing this while laying down, then while walking. Next, incorporate core activation into daily activities and exercise. Some key exercises to work on core activation are planks, push-ups, squats, and lunges.
Why stretching helps back pain
Stretching restores the range of motion to muscles. Many people sit for long periods during the day. Extended sitting shortens muscle groups, such as the hip muscles (hip flexors). When muscles are shortened they pull the back out of neutral position. The suboptimal position predisposes to back pain. Stretching restores the range of motion to the shortened muscles. Key muscles to stretch for low back care include the back of the legs (hamstrings and calves), front of the hips (hip flexors), sides of the hip (hip abductors), and low back muscles.
Low impact home program for lower back pain relief
My favorite form of exercise to improve core strength and flexibility is functional training combined with active stretching and basic yoga postures. Functional exercises work on muscle movements that are similar to everyday activities. Key functional exercises for the lower body include squats and lunges. Likewise, key exercises for the upper body and core include planks and push-ups. Additionally, postures are therapeutic for low back care because they provide core strengthening and a functional stretch. Key postures for low back care include standing side bend, downward dog, high lunge, figure four stretch.
Low back home program
- Arms overhead stretch (warrior II pose)—extension stretch of the upper body
- Squats x 10
- Standing side bend stretch x 30s
- Squats x10–slow on the way down
- Quadricep stretch each side (standing or sitting)
- Lunges x 10 each side
- Calf raises—slow on the way down x 10
- Leg lifts to the front, side, and back x 10 each direction
- Downward dog (stretches the back of the legs) x 30s
- Figure four stretch (stretches hips) x 30s
Red flags–medical evaluation needed
The above exercise tips will help most people with low back pain. There are some features that suggest back pain is more serious and requires a medical evaluation.
- Trauma (make sure nothing is broken)
- A history of cancer or unexplained weight loss
- Neurologic changes such as numbness or weakness, loss of bladder control
- First back pain at 50 years of age or older