Importance of regular exercise for back health

Every system in our body benefits from regular movement, including the back. Consistent physical activity, especially when performed with spine-sparing techniques, helps keep the back healthy and strong.

Every part of your back, including the muscles, bones, joints, discs and nerves, all benefit from movement.

Beyond the tissue benefits of exercise, more physically fit individuals have been found to have a higher tolerance for pain. Consequently, they are less concerned about and bothered by minor aches and pains. 

Moreover, exercise helps reduce stress hormone levels and stimulates the release of pain-relieving chemicals like endorphins in the body.

While exercise is crucial for preventing pain and promoting back health, it can also increase the risk of pain if not performed correctly.

Exercise can increase the risk of pain if:

  1. It isn’t performed in a spine-sparing way. For example, exercises that involve spinal movement while under load increase the risk of injury.
  2. You over-train. Just like with anything else, too much of a good thing isn’t beneficial. Therefore, giving your back sufficient recovery time is important. Too much exercise without enough rest can lead to the accumulation of tissue stresses, eventually resulting in tissue injury and pain.  

Recommended exercises for improving spinal stability

Stability exercises are among the most important types of exercises for improving spinal health. A stable spine is necessary for at least three reasons:

  1. Helps to prevent buckling injuries. These occur when one level of the spine bends too far, similar to how a plastic drinking straw bends or buckles when you push down vertically on one end.
  2. Enables optimal power production from the hips and the shoulders. The spine and torso can be seen as the foundation from which movement occurs. Without sufficient stability, energy leaks will occur, resulting in less efficient movement from the hips and shoulders.
  3. Prevents painful micromovements in those with a history of back pain. Spinal injury often results in lax joints that are susceptible to painful micro-movements. When that occurs, sufficient stability and stiffness can be regained through muscular stabilization.

For most people, the McGill Big 3, as they have become known, are excellent spinal stability exercises to begin their training with. 

These exercises have been shown to improve spinal stability and movement patterns while placing very little compressive load on the spine.

The McGill Big 3 consists of the bird dog, side plank and modified curl-up.

  • The bird dog is performed by beginning in a quadruped position (i.e. on your hands and knees) and then lifting the opposite leg and arm. This position is held for 7-10 seconds and repeated on each side. For most people, performing 3 sets with 6, 4, and 2 repetitions respectively is sufficient.
  • The side plank is performed by beginning in a side-lying position and then lifting your body off the ground while supporting yourself on your elbow and either knees or feet (for the more advanced version). This position is held for 7-10 seconds and performed on both sides. For most people, being able to perform 3 sets with 6, 4, and 2 repetitions respectively is sufficient.
  • The modified curl-up is the third of the Big 3 exercises. It is performed by lying on your back with one leg straight and the other knee bent. The head and shoulders are lifted off the ground just enough to make an imaginary weight scale read zero. This position is held for 7-10 seconds. For most people, being able to perform 3 sets with 6, 4, and 2 repetitions respectively is sufficient.

Incorporating core-strengthening exercises into a fitness routine

The stability exercises above are core-strengthening exercises. It’s important to understand that core strengthening doesn’t just involve abdominal exercises. Your core includes not only your abs but also your obliques (the muscles on your sides) and your low back muscles.

For most people, performing core-strengthening exercises at the beginning of their fitness routine is most beneficial. This helps to establish spine stabilizing patterns before proceeding to other exercises.

Individuals with back pain from joint instability may find that performing the Big 3 exercises provides several hours of reduced pain. It can be helpful for these individuals to perform the Big 3 exercises several times throughout the day, for example, both in the morning and afternoon, in order to achieve multiple periods of reduced pain during the day.