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• May 24, 2011   |   0 Comments   |  

Achieving Spinal Fitness

During my first few years of practice in the 1980s, I noticed a disturbing trend.  After examining thousands of patients repeatedly during this time period, it was evident that a majority were rapidly losing strength and flexibility of their spinal muscles.   From month to month, I could actually feel a progressive loss of muscle tonus and an increase in fat deposits up and down their spines.  Most of these patients confessed that, after their spinal pain symptoms stopped, they ceased to perform the daily home exercises I had taught them.  As a result, they were experiencing increasingly frequent and more severe episodes of back and neck pain and related health problems.  Many could no longer do the required physical tasks of their jobs and/or had to give up their favorite physical activities.

There were, of course, exceptions to this norm.  Among the minority of my patients who did continue to do spinal strength and flexibility exercises regularly, there was a much lower rate of recurring spinal problems.  In a typical patient of this group, I could feel gradual improvement in the mobility of his or her spine on each office visit.  These patients often came in, not because they were in pain, but rather, to have me check their spines and to review old exercises or learn more advanced ones.

Based on these clinical experiences, I vowed to redouble my efforts to help people improve and maintain the integrity of their spinal muscles, that is, to help them achieve spinal fitness.  In 1989, to help injured patients rebuild strength and flexibility of their spines, we expanded our office to include a fully equipped strength training clinic, the Back to Work Rehabilitation Center.  One year later, we expanded again by starting the Strength for Life® (SfL) program to help all adults, even those without specific spinal injuries, learn how to perform safely and effectively strength training exercises for the entire body.  To this day, several SfL trainees from the early 1990s continue to exercise in our training center.  Why?  Because they know from experience how great it feels to approach their potential for spinal fitness.  They enjoy being able to perform their favorite physical activities and plan to continue doing so.

So what is this state of spinal fitness?  Does it only mean having strong back muscles?  Do we have to go to a gym in order to achieve it?  These are questions that we all should consider.

The Components of Spinal Fitness

The word “fit” is defined by Webster’s as: “1. adapted or suited, appropriate; 2. proper or becoming; 3. qualified or competent; 4. prepared or ready; 5. in good physical condition.”  By extension, spinal fitness means that our spines are suitably conditioned, prepared, and competent to meet the demands of our individual lives. On the other hand, if we do not attain spinal fitness, our bodies will break down as we try to perform the necessary physical tasks of our daily lives.  There are at least four essential components to spinal fitness:Integrity of the spinal joints.   The joints of our spine, as with our entire body, are where motion of the human skeleton begins. If we are to execute with power and grace all of the demanding physical tasks of our daily lives, the subtle joint movements between our individual vertebrae must be fluid and complete.  If specific joints of the spine are restricted in their normal functions, then the spinal muscles that cross over those joints also cannot function normally. Abnormal restrictions of joint movement in the spine are termed subluxations and often cause premature degeneration of joint cartilage. Correcting subluxations is the primary objective of chiropractic spinal adjustments.

  1. Integrity of the spinal muscles. Even if the joints of the spine are moving  properly, we have not achieved spinal fitness if the muscles that cross those joints are not flexible, strong, and balanced.  Most of us place extraordinary demands upon our spinal muscles.  Sitting in a car, at a computer, in front of a television, or on a fork lift for hours at a time degrades our spinal muscles in a relatively short period of time.  In a fraction of a second, lifting heavy or even modest loads with poor bodily mechanics can damage our spinal joints, discs, and muscles beyond repair.  As the definition of “fit” implies, we must “prepare” the muscles of our spine to be ready for these demands.  The best way to achieve muscular fitness of the spine is to perform stretching and strengthening exercises every single day.
  2. Postural Fitness. The next essential component to spinal fitness is postural fitness.  Even when the segments of our spine are mobile and the muscles are strong and pliable, if we perform the physical tasks of daily life in compromised positions, that is, with bad posture, we can easily cause serious breakdowns in spinal integrity.  How we position our bodies when we sit, stand, sleep, walk, run, lift, push, and so on, has a direct impact upon the health of our spines.  One of the most important ways to reinforce postural excellence is to emphasize optimal body positions while performing our daily exercise regimens.  The positions we assume while performing spinal exercises have a profound effect upon how well we use our bodies during all of the other physical activities of daily life.
  3. Whole body fitness. The fitness of our spines cannot be isolated from the overall fitness of our bodies.  A few examples illustrate this point.  First, the integrity of our abdominal muscles plays a major role in joint and muscle function in the spine as well as in our posture. If the abdominal muscles are weak, the abdomen protrudes forward causing an extreme arch in the lower back, that is, a hyperlordosis.  A hyperlordotic posture accelerates degeneration of the joints of the lower spine.

A second and less obvious example is a loss in the integrity of the pelvic and lower extremity muscles, which also diminishes our spinal fitness.  If our gluteals, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles are strong and flexible, they support us as we stand, walk, run, climb etc.  This decreases pressure on the structural elements of our spine, notably the facet joints and the intervertebral discs.  Conversely, if we allow these muscle groups to become weak, gravitational pressure increases on our discs and facets.

A third and even less obvious example is that cardiovascular fitness and the flexibility of our thorax are both essential to achieving and maintaining spinal fitness.  If we exercise in a manner that stimulates deep breathing and increased aerobic capacity of the cardiopulmonary system, we also increase the extensibility of the muscles and ligaments between our ribs, allowing our spinal muscles to stretch and contract normally as well. Deep respiratory exercises also insure that our spinal muscles are supplied with the oxygen they need to function optimally.  Conversely, those of us who smoke and/or do not breathe deeply are less able to supply oxygen to our spinal muscles. Restricted respiration also causes stiffness of the muscles and ligaments of the rib cage, degrades our posture, and compromises our spinal health.

So how do we achieve and maintain spinal fitness?  By now the answers should be straightforward:

  1. Perform 10-30 minutes of spinal exercises every day. You do not have to go to a gym to do these and you do not have to do them all every day.  Break them up into two or even three groups so that you can really feel and enjoy each exercise.
  2. Do other types of vigorous exercise every day.  Yes, strength training is essential.  But walking vigorously, running, cycling, cross country skiing, and swimming are terrific, too.  Just be sure to breathe deeply and endeavor to maintain excellent posture in all of your exercise endeavors.
  3. Evaluate all of the postural equipment in your everyday life. Examine your shoes, your mattress, your car seat, your chair, your computer monitor and keyboard, and every other position-related apparatus in your life.  Utilize your exercise experience to determine if each piece is just right for you.
  4. Schedule regular chiropractic checkups. Even if you follow steps 1 to 3 above, it is still a great idea to have your spinal fitness examined regularly. For some of us with demanding jobs or previous injuries, once a week may be necessary.  For those who feel great almost all of the time, having a checkup once per month is an excellent way to continue feeling that way.

I hope that each reader has discovered at least one very good idea in this article.  May we all enjoy a higher level of spinal fitness and better health in 2011.

Category: Exercise Fitness, Spinal Fitness

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