The human spine is a column of individual bone structures stacked atop each other, separated by rigid yet flexible spinal discs. Over time, both the bone’s integrity and the disc’s flexibility can wane, leading to vertebral fractures, narrowing spinal canals, and herniated discs. Genetic and external factors can accelerate or exacerbate these issues, ranging from osteoarthritis to spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, degenerative disc disease, and an overall decrease in spine health.
The human body is adaptable, meaning it can reallocate resources and fortify itself in response to appropriate stressors and support. However, protective factors also help reduce the risk of these conditions, prolong the stability of your spine, and help provide a better quality of life. Even after the diagnosis of a disease has been diagnosed. Establishing these two things – the right stressors and the proper support – is the essence of physical therapy and long-term physical training.
What Affects Spine Health?
There are many ways to improve your spinal health, but not all are relevant to your given situation or circumstances. Your best source of information will always be your doctor or spine specialist. Only they can access the equipment and data needed to advise you on your health.
However, under most circumstances, the following remains true:
- Physical activity can strengthen the muscles around the spine and provide better support.
- The spine itself responds positively to physical activities. Heavy load training can increase bone density in the spine, promote better hydration in your spinal discs, and reduce instances of lower back pain.
- Diet is critical to proper bone and physical health. The benefits of training are only correctly translated into results if accompanied by a steady, balanced diet and lots of rest.
- Good sleep is essential. Addressing issues contributing to poor sleep and insomnia can reduce pain and improve the overall quality of life.
- A healthier body weight, if obesity is an issue, can reduce pressure on the spine and other joints, pain, and inflammation.
- Pain is both physical and mental. Chronic pain and debilitating spinal outcomes can exacerbate and create low moods. These can lower the body’s pain thresholds and make you feel worse. Psychotherapy and antidepressants, if prescribed, can help improve mood and pain.
- There is no such thing as an inherently lousy exercise. Some exercises are better than others at achieving specific goals. The most important thing is learning what you can. It cannot be done given your current fitness level and learning to manage load (intensity, usually physical resistance or weight) and volume (the amount of physical activity you perform) to minimize injury and maximize health.
Spinal health goes hand in hand with overall physical health. The spine is ultimately involved in nearly any form of physical activity, especially if you’re on your feet.
Learning to Move Again
Suppose you’ve been out of the gym or haven’t engaged with your favorite sport or physical activity for some time. In that case, it may be a good idea to work with a physical therapist on reintroducing proper movement, both in and outside the exercise context.
We move daily, including at work and while performing household chores. Even if you exercise regularly, most people spend less than a tenth of their waking lives doing any sport or training. Most of the time, we tend to sit, pick things up, carry everyday objects, or walk around.
Moving things for a living helps you learn how to improve your spinal health by embracing healthier movements in your everyday setting. Good physical therapists will adapt your training sessions to reflect the tasks you perform the most, whether carrying irregular objects or hauling things over a longer distance.
It’s About Long-Term Progress
In essence, that means picking up a sport or activity you enjoy doing. Certain sports will positively or negatively impact your spine and joint health more than others – you may want to speak with your doctor about what you have in mind.
Contact sports may increase your overall risk of injury. For example, activities that focus on unilateral movement like golfing and baseball may lead to more significant muscular imbalances. But non-contact, bilateral training, such as biking, swimming, dancing, or yoga, can strengthen and stabilize the spine, promote balanced muscle growth, and build a strong core. Other activities such as performative martial arts or training regimens will also positively impact the spine.
Everyday Activities For Spine Health
For better overall physical fitness and improved spine health, it helps to focus on movements and exercises that bring the most benefit for their respective time investment. An excellent place to start for many is the Big Three circuit developed by Dr. Stuart McGill, an expert on spinal mechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada featuring three exercises for better spine health. The big three include:
- The curl-up.
- The side-plank.
- The bird-dog.
To perform the circuit, you will do a reverse pyramid – begin with five repetitions of each exercise, a short rest, then three repetitions of each exercise, another short rest, and a single repetition.
In addition to the big three, a few other vital exercises and movement patterns that can help create a healthier, stable spine, build total-body strength, and form a supportive core include:
- A loaded squat. Carrying a load in front (front squat) or on your back (back squat) helps train proper squatting techniques and provides a balanced stimulus throughout the lower body.
- A loaded hip hinge. A loaded hip hinge is the best way to train spinal stability and learn how to maintain a rigid torso, especially while picking things up.
- Carrying an object unilaterally. It allows you to build stabilizing muscles throughout the core. The farmer’s carry is one of the best exercises that achieve this movement.
- Lifting an object overhead. The overhead press is a great exercise that asks a lot of the core’s stabilizing muscles.
Load management and volume are essential. You don’t need an athlete’s program to make long-term progress. Start slow, start low, and work with a professional to coach healthy movement patterns and improve your form.
Work With a Professional
Personal trainers are a great way to get started on the right foot. A personal trainer will design a workout program for you and give you personalized tips to improve your technique. If you have little to no experience exercising or have recently had an injury, investing in a personal trainer may be suitable.
Be sure to work with someone who has experience with your particular circumstances, whether it’s post-surgical rehabilitation, senior training, osteoporosis, work-related chronic pain, and other conditions.
The body is incredibly adaptable and robust. While some conditions are irreversible – such as aging – you can always help your body become more powerful and prepare for the challenges ahead. Implementing a training program can overcome years of inactivity. In addition to general fitness, physical activity can increase life expectancy and lead to a healthier, better quality of life – and it comes in many, many different forms.