As we begin to enter the season of warmer weather here in Central Arkansas, many of us are motivated to shake off the winter cobwebs and sedentary habits. You start thinking about getting into shape for the spring and summer, or for the kids, kicking into gear for baseball and softball season.
For people who feel this way, the doctor will usually recommend movement and exercise. However, jumping back into high speed, full throttle activity, without ramping one’s body back into shape can lead to injury and frustration. You always want to make sure you focus on the safety of your body before exercising or performing sports activities.
Back and neck pain are two of the most frequent symptoms that bring patients in to see their primary care physician. These symptoms can be prevented with some relatively simple stretches and education of how to gradually increase the intensity of your exercise.
Walking is great exercise and is suggested as you begin to increase distance and speed gradually. Body pushing and pulling exercises (push-ups, pull-ups, crunches and unweighted squats) are a good way not only to begin to regain lost strength and stamina, but also very good ways to maintain those gains.
Low back pain can be improved with exercises directed toward strengthening the core muscles, those muscles that support the trunk during sitting, walking and exercise. Exercises that are effective at improving core strength include “plank”, “dog” and “superman” poses.
The plank position is named because the body is held in a very straight, nearly horizontal position for as long as possible. This exercise strengthens the abdominal muscles, the extensor muscles of the back, and the oblique muscles at the side of the trunk. There are several variations of this exercise.
The hardest of which is to hold one’s body in a push-up position, body flat, arms extended, weight on hands and toes. Doing so in front of a mirror can help fine tune the pose, so that the mid-section is not too high in the air. A slightly easier modification is to hold the same pose, but rest on one’s elbows and forearms. And the easiest modification is to hold the plank with weight on knees instead of toes.
I recommend trying to hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds, take a rest, and repeat as many times as possible up to 5 to 10 minutes or so, gradually increasing the duration of each “hold”. People with significant shoulder pain may not be able to do this exercise.
Dog and superman poses are related. The dog pose is done starting with getting on the floor, on hands and knees. Extend one leg behind you in the air, with weight remaining on the other knee and both hands. Hold this position for as long as possible, then switch legs, holding as long as possible. Repeat both legs several times. This exercise works the muscles on the back of the spine, the ones that help hold you upright during walking, as well as the gluteus muscles (buttocks).
Superman pose is harder, and works the upper back as well as the lower back and buttocks, and helps with balance. For superman pose, begin in the dog pose, then lift the opposite arm from the leg that is lifted, straight in front of you.
To prevent injury, or help with neck pain, gentle range of motion exercises can help. Our neck moves in 6 directions: forward flexion, backward extension, rotation to the right and left, and tilting to the right and left. Gently moving one’s neck through these six directions to the point of pain, then holding, can help loosen stiff joints, mobilize shortened muscles, and may help prevent injury.
The above exercises can help prepare you for getting back into the swing of a healthier and active lifestyle this spring.