The human spine is the foundational support of the whole body. Perfectly balanced and elegantly aligned, it allows us to maintain an upright posture and enjoy the freedom of movement. The spine also acts as a protective shield for the spinal cord, nervous system, and internal organs.
Despite the importance of our spines, back pain and spinal problems are very common and become more prevalent with age.
The good news is that there are many things we can do to keep our spines healthy, minimise back problems, and look forward to a flexible and pain-free future.
With that said, here are nine tips for a healthy spine.
1. Stretch and strengthen the back
While all physical activity is good for the body and mind, many of these activities don’t specifically strengthen and condition our backs – so it’s helpful to incorporate exercises that target your back and core into your normal exercise regime.
You don’t need to be fit or flexible to do these exercises. Simple stretching exercises can go a long way in improving core strength and, in turn, taking pressure off your lower back and better supporting your spine.
Regularly stretching your back, abs, and hamstrings can also help more nutrients reach your spinal discs and tissues. This can reduce inflammation, keep your muscles and joints healthy, and speed up healing.
Exercises like yoga and Pilates are also great ways to strengthen your core muscles. To find out more, you might want to check out our introductions to yoga and Pilates – or tune in to one of our ongoing fitness classes over on Rest Less Events, such as standing Pilates and seated yoga slow down.
You can also check out the video below to see some spinal stretches in action.
2. Be mindful of your sitting posture
Many of us have poor posture and aren’t aware of it. If you’re sitting down, take a moment to check your position – are you slouching or leaning forward?
The spine has a series of natural curves, and when our posture works against these curves, the nerves can become damaged. If you have a job where you sit in front of a screen, the natural tendency is to lean towards it, which further harms our lumbar discs.
It’s really important to find a sitting position that supports your spine’s natural curves – so if you spend a lot of time sitting down, it’s worth taking time to reevaluate your posture. It may also be helpful to invest in an ergonomic chair which supports your spine. The Independent has a list of the best ergonomic chairs for 2023.
To find out more about improving your posture, watch the video below.
3. Try to keep sitting time to a minimum
It’s also a good idea to limit sitting time as much as possible. The discs in your lower spine take on more pressure when you’re sitting than when you’re standing, and sitting down for long periods of time can actively cause back pain.
If you have to sit for work, it’s best to stretch and walk at every opportunity to keep your spine activated, even if it’s just for a minute at a time.
If you work from home, you might want to think about getting a stand-up desk. Alternatively, you could try sitting on a workout ball instead of a chair, so that your core remains engaged and your back stays erect. It can also help to take advantage of your lunch break and go outside for a quick walk, rather than remaining sat down throughout the day.
4. Practise proper lifting
Improper lifting technique is a common cause of many back injuries. If you lift heavy items without making sure your spine is supported, your lower back muscles can become compromised, leading to painful strains. Plus, in some cases, it can cause your spinal joint to lock or your spinal discs to rupture.
To practise proper lifting, it’s important to bend your knees and lead with your hips (not your shoulders), engage your core, and keep your chest forward.
Before lifting any load, it’s also a good idea to stop and consider how heavy it is and whether you should really be lifting it in the first place.
To learn the proper lifting technique, check out the video below.
5. Check your sleeping position
Sleep is the time when the structures in your spine rest and recuperate, so it’s important to make sure your back and neck are positioned correctly at night.
To make sure your spine is properly supported, it can help to choose a firm or medium-firm mattress. If your mattress is too soft, your spine can start to sag, which can cause chronic neck and back pain and may even cause a spinal disc to pull out of place, bulge, or herniate.
Similarly, a good pillow should support the natural curve of your neck and lower back, and also suit your sleeping position. If you sleep on your side, a thicker pillow is best, as these make sure that your neck stays in the middle of your shoulders. And if you sleep on your back, a medium or flat pillow will make sure your neck isn’t propped up too high.
Try to avoid sleeping on your stomach or curling into a foetal position as much as possible, as these sleeping positions can place extra pressure on your back.
Check out our article on the best and worst sleeping positions to find out more.
6. Eat the right foods
We all know that eating the right foods is key to staying healthy – but proper nutrition plays a direct role in maintaining a healthy spine too.
Try to cut down on foods that can cause inflammation – like refined sugar, processed foods, and red meat – and eat as many anti-inflammatory foods as possible – like whole grains, fruits, veggies, and olive oil. To find out more, you might want to check out our article; 14 anti-inflammatory foods.
It’s also wise to eat foods that are high in calcium and other important minerals and vitamins, such as dark green vegetables, beans and lentils, sardines, almonds, tofu, and figs. These foods can help prevent spinal disorders like osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.
Not only will eating a healthy, balanced diet make you feel good, but it can also help you maintain a healthy weight. This reduces the amount of pressure on the spine and minimises your chances of injuring your back.
7. Give up smoking
It’s no secret that smoking is bad for your lungs, heart, and overall health – but you may be surprised to find out that it can also be harmful to your spine.
Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, which means it tightens blood vessels and restricts blood flow. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for oxygen and nutrients to reach the spine.
Vasoconstriction raises the risk of inflammation and degradation within the spine and smoking also damages the vascular structures of your spinal discs and joints. This means that it can also increase the chances of developing degenerative spinal disorders and back pain.
If you smoke and would like to quit, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your GP. They can advise you on your options, such as enrolling you in a stop-smoking clinic or giving you information on nicotine replacement therapy.
To find out more about quitting smoking and get some tips, have a read of this article from The British Heart Foundation.
8. Increase your step count
While it’s important to do exercise that specifically targets your back and core, walking also benefits your spine.
As well as strengthening your core muscles, walking improves spinal flexibility, solidifies bone structure, boosts balance, and nourishes your spinal soft tissues with essential nutrients.
Walking is also a really effective low-impact exercise. So if you’re recovering from injury or illness (or you’re not used to regular exercise), it’s a great way to begin strengthening your spine and improving your fitness and flexibility.
For tips on how to walk more, you might want to check out our article; 17 creative ways to increase your daily step count.
9. Treat yourself to a massage
Finally, you might want to think about treating yourself to a massage. While massage therapy can be an effective treatment for back injuries and pain, you don’t need to be suffering to have one.
Getting a massage can stimulate blood circulation, improve your spinal range of motion, and loosen tight muscles and connective tissues. It also increases endorphin (feel-good hormone) levels, which can help you feel more relaxed, improve insomnia, and promote a good night’s sleep. Our article, 10 health benefits of massage, provides more detail.
If you don’t want to visit a professional massage therapist, you can give yourself an easy DIY massage at home using only a tennis ball. Watch the video below to find out how!
From slipped discs to trapped nerves, most of us have experienced back pain at some point – and, unfortunately, back problems become more common with age.
Even if you’ve never had problems with your back or neck before, it’s still incredibly important to look after your spine – not only to make daily life more comfortable but also to help prevent future issues.
Thankfully, there are many things we can do in our day-to-day lives that help keep our spines strong and supple. This includes eating healthily, investing in the right mattress and pillow, taking time to learn how to lift properly, and making sure our exercise routines target our back and core.
For more healthy spine tips, you might want to check out our article; 5 exercises to help improve your posture.
Have you ever had problems with your back or neck? Do you have any of your own tips for a healthy spine you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.