If you love exploring the outdoors, you depend on a strong back. Whether you’re skiing through deep powder, hiking to a mountaintop, or paddling around the next inlet, back pain can seriously hinder your plans. But with proper preparation, it’s possible to recover from pain or, better yet, to avoid it entirely. We asked two physical therapists to share advice on preparing your back for rigorous outdoor activity.
Building back strength takes time and begins at home with a general fitness regimen. A back-strengthening routine of 15 to 30 minutes, repeated a few times a week, is excellent preparation for an outdoor excursion.
“Do it in small amounts and work up toward the goal,” says Colleen Davis, a physical therapist with Bay State Physical Therapy in Reading, Mass. An incremental approach is especially important if you’ve had a back injury. When back pain gets worse, “Sometimes it’s just doing too much too soon,” she says.
Rebecca Brown, a physical therapist with Healthy Soles Physical Therapy and Orthotics in Boston, views overall fitness as the best protection against injury. “The more fit someone is for a sport, the less likely they are to fall into a fatigued position, which always puts the back at risk,” Brown says.
“Mid and upper are the two [areas of the back] that people tend to not be as strong in,” Davis says. For the upper back, Davis recommends lying on your stomach and making the shape of a Y, I, or T with your arms. Planks and side planks strengthen the lower back. (See next page for instructions.) To work the entire back, Davis suggests sets of squats.
Strength alone won’t guarantee back health. You also need flexibility. Stretching increases your range of motion and improves posture, which in turn reduces the likelihood of injury.
“Flexibility of the hamstring is vital,” Brown says; the hamstring muscles support the back. She recommends a combination of press-ups, planks, and hamstring stretches. (See next page.) Skiers may want to add a spinal twist to the mix.
STAY IN MOTION
It may seem counterintuitive, but stiffness is a sign to stay in motion.
“If you’re having pain, continuing to do what we call gentle movement is good,” Davis says. “You want to keep moving, but not forcefully. Gentle, active movement helps to calm down muscle spasms and joint pain through pain-free range of motion.”
When you set up camp, stop for lunch, or pause your paddle for a beach break, engage in some gentle stretching, such as the lower trunk rotations and hip flexor stretches described below.
Brown offers another piece of advice for kayakers: “You must find a way to take a break and get yourself out of your sitting position every 20 to 30 minutes.” From your seated position, make yourself as tall as possible and rock your pelvis forward and backward 10 times. Then grab either side of the kayak and lift yourself so your rear end is off the seat. Hold this for 5 to 10 seconds and repeat it three to five times.
ASK FOR HELP
If you’ve experienced prolonged back pain, it might be time to seek the help of a physical therapist. “A lot of people tend to wait until the pain is debilitating, and if that minor pain had been addressed, maybe debilitating pain could have been avoided,” Davis says.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t give up. Regular exercises will improve your health overall—and they’re your ticket to enjoying the great outdoors.
WE’VE GOT YOUR BACK: 6 EASY EXERCISES
To prevent back pain during outdoor excursions, start indoors. An exercise routine that strengthens your back and increases flexibility will reduce your chance of injury. It won’t take long: 15 to 30 minutes about three times a week.
Rebecca Brown, a physical therapist with Healthy Soles Physical Therapy and Orthotics in Boston, and Colleen Davis, a physical therapist with Bay State Physical Therapy in Reading, Mass., recommend the following exercises:
These simple exercises strengthen the upper back. Start by lying on your stomach then place your hands under your shoulders. Keep your hips on the floor and press up with your arms to lift your upper body (above); imagine a push-up in which you lift only your torso. “I would recommend doing at least two sets of 10 reps, at least once a day—twice a day if having back trouble,” Brown says.
To strengthen your lower back, Brown suggests a daily set of planks. Lie face-down with your forearms on the ground and your elbows beneath your shoulders (above). Hold the position for four reps of 10 seconds each; build up to 30 seconds each.
To stretch your hamstrings, the muscles that support your back, lie on your back and raise your left leg high. Keep your leg extended straight up and your pelvis flat on the floor, with the opposite leg bent (above). Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds then switch legs. Perform three repetitions, twice a day at first. You can drop down to once a day as your flexibility improves.
LOWER TRUNK ROTATION
“You’re just lying on your back with your knees bent. Then you’re letting your knees go over to the right then over to the left,” Davis says. “It usually feels pretty good.” Do 30 reps at a slow and steady pace.
HIP FLEXOR STRETCH
Kneel on one knee and place your opposite leg, bent at a 90-degree angle, in front of you. Push your hips forward and your rear knee into the ground to stretch. “We call it half-kneeling,” Davis says. Do two sets of 30-second stretches for each leg.
Got more time? Add some squats, which strengthen your entire back. To perform a squat, stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Keeping hips, knees, and ankles aligned and your back flat, squat down until your hips are below your knees. Stand back up and repeat. One trick to check your form: Place a chair or short stool behind you and squat until you’re almost sitting—but don’t actually take a seat—then stand up straight again. Begin with two sets of 15, increasing to three sets when two sets feels easy.