17 years ago my life changed forever in the blink of an eye. I was playing (American style) Football with friends and I stretched out to catch a pass. I got a hold of the ball but before I had a chance to regain my footing I was smashed by two guys coming in from opposite directions. When I attempted to get up I was surprised to find I had no ability to lift myself off the ground. To my dismay, I had to be carried off the field in a stretcher and taken to the emergency room. X rays showed that the spine had been cracked at the intersection of the lumbar and sacral segments and that the joint had collapsed, compressing the nerve roots. Fortunately for me, after a process of rehabilitation, I was able to regain full function. Many are not so lucky. But I will never forget the parting words from the good doctor who supervised my rehab. “You will always have to keep your core strong to compensate for the injury. You have no choice but to do so, and this is in fact a blessing”
In the 17 years that have followed, I have learned through painful trial and error how true his words were. The only thing I would add is that in addition to core strength it is equally important to maintain a high level of flexibility. Anytime I neglect these two precepts, I am rewarded with pain and dysfunction. I say rewarded because there is no greater gift you can give yourself than the gift of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Ask anyone who is missing either and they will confirm it. If pain (whether mental or physical) forces you to take up the exercise habit, know that there is no measure to the benefits you will reap in every area of your life.
I have since made it my mission to understand the causes of and solutions to back pain. I believe in science and common sense and I reject the treatment of back pain with witchcraft or voodoo. Prayer will not solve back pain, nor will drinking special teas or having someone tap on the soles of your feet while chanting. Back pain is real, and its causes are physical, they are not in your head. Intuitively you probably know that sitting in bucket seats or couches for long periods is terrible for backs because these things cause muscle shortening and disc creep. This doesn’t mean don’t sit, it means sit right and keep it moving. The solution to back pain is not to lay in bed, it is to learn to perform the activities of daily living with perfect spine-sparing mechanics.
Stay active, do safe supervised strength work and incorporate stretching. Especially as you age.
I have included one of my favorite abdominal exercises, the Bird Dog. I love it because it is safe and because you can make it as hard or as easy as you wish by adjusting the parameters I show in this video. Always work through a pain free range of motion, if at any point you have discomfort, stop and see a fitness professional.
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