Musculoskeletal

Jan Vickery, Lead Physiotherapist at AXA Health

Top 10 exercises for a healthy back

11 May 2021

"If your lifestyle involves a lot of sitting each day, it's important that you watch your posture and move around as much as you can to reduce the risk of muscle, bone and joint problems"

says Jan Vickery, Lead Physiotherapist here at AXA Health.

A modern problem

Modern life doesn't lend itself to having a healthy back. Long hours sitting all day at a desk or on the road can take its toll. Add to this a whole host of other sedentary behaviours like TV viewing, sitting at a computer and game console use, and it's no wonder that our bodies start feeling the strain.

With many adults in the UK spending around 9 hours each day sitting [NHS, 2019], it's not surprising that 8 out of 10 people will suffer from back pain or some other musculoskeletal problem in their lifetime [BMJ, 2000].

Keeping your posture in check

Whether it's sitting at your desk, driving in your car or watching TV at home, sitting still for too long can encourage bad posture. It can also weaken muscles that are crucial for supporting your spine.

Staying active for your whole health

Research has shown that sitting still for too long – day in, day out – is linked to being overweight and obese, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and early death. Sitting for long periods is also thought to slow the metabolism, which affects the body's ability to regulate blood sugar, blood pressure and break down body fat [NHS, 2019], and can lead to heart and circulatory diseases like heart attack and stroke. [BHF, 2021]. A lack of physical activity can also impact on different aspects of our mental wellbeing [Psychology Today, 2014].

Add it all up and, if your lifestyle involves a lot of sitting, it's vital you take care of yourself.

Healthcare professionals recommend breaking up long periods of sitting with short bouts of activity for just 1 to 2 minutes – as often as every 30 minutes.

Some useful tips to help you break up the amount of time you spend sitting each day include:

  • standing if you take a train or bus
  • taking the stairs and walking up escalators
  • setting a reminder to get up every 30 minutes
  • height adjustable desks that allow you to stand while you are working can also help but do avoid standing all day
  • standing or walking around while you're on the phone
  • taking a walk break every time you have a coffee or tea break
  • walking to a co-worker's desk if you can instead of emailing or calling them
  • walk and talk meetings – whether they’re in person or virtual
  • swapping some TV time for more active pastimes or hobbies.

Self-managing muscle, bone and joint problems

Here are ten lower back and core exercises that a physiotherapist might recommend to help. They can all be done in the comfort of your own home, and are especially useful if you sit for long periods – as they help to encourage good posture and strengthen key muscles.

1. Cat stretch

This exercise helps to stretch your lower back as you move from kneeling on all fours to sitting on your heels.

Tips: The movement into sitting on your heels should be smooth and controlled. Don't hold your breath as you perform the exercise.

Watch a video demo

2. Anterior pelvic tilt

This improves lower back and pelvic movement by arching your back in four-point kneeling.

Tips: The movement should be slow and controlled. Breathe normally throughout the exercise.

Watch the video

3. Knee to chest

This helps to stretch your lower back muscles through active movement.

Tip: Do this lower back exercise slowly and with control.

Watch the video

4. Lumbar side-flexion

This helps to stretch your lower back by bending from side to side.

Tips: The movement should be slow and controlled, and should only be to the side.

Watch the video

5. Lumbar extensions prone

This exercise involves passive movement of the lower back as you lie on your front.

Tips: Use your arm muscles to push up as you allow your back to arch.  Breathe out at the top of the movement and slowly lower yourself down.

Watch the video

6. Hip rolls

This involves lifting your lower back and buttocks off the ground by pushing through your feet in a gradual motion.

Tips: Your lower back should remain in a neutral position (neither arched or rounded) throughout. Hold the lifted position as steadily as possible whilst inhaling.

Watch the video

7. Lumbar rotation crook lying

Active movement of the lower back (rotation) by moving the knees side to side.

Tip: Roll the knees from side to side slowly and with control.

Watch the video

8. Bird dog

This exercise helps you strengthen your core stability, shoulder and buttock muscles. It involves four point kneeling with lifting your opposite arm and leg.

Tips: Your lower back should remain in a neutral position (neither arched or rounded) throughout. A straight line should form from your ankle to hip and hand and shoulder. Hold this position as steady as possible while maintaining a normal breathing pattern.

Watch the video

9. Abdominal engagement

By lifting your hips and knees, this exercise helps you strengthen your core stability muscles.

Tips: Activate your core stability muscles by gently drawing your lower abdomen towards your spine. Ensure your lower back remains in a neutral position (neither arched or rounded) throughout. Hold this position as steady as possible while maintaining a normal breathing pattern and keeping your knees and hips flexed to 90 degrees.

Watch the video

10. Dead bug

This exercise help you to improve lower back and core control through lifting your opposite arm and knee alternately.

Tips: Activate your core stability muscles by gently drawing your lower abdomen towards your spine. Your lower back should remain in a neutral position (neither arched or rounded) throughout. Hold this position as steady as possible while maintaining a normal breathing pattern.

Watch the video

Further information and support

If you suffer with back pain, or any other issue affecting your muscles, bones and joints that doesn’t seem to be getting better, or actually gets worse over time, it’s worth contacting your GP to find out the cause (if unknown) and what treatment may be available to aid recovery.

If you’re an AXA Health member you can get specialist support for any problem affecting the muscles, bones or joints, without the need for a GP referral, through our Working Body service. They’ll arrange for you to talk to a physiotherapist who can assess your symptoms, talk to you about what they could mean, and help you plan what to do next. 

Check your cover online or speak to your claims team for details on how to access this service. The claims team can be contacted on 0800 454 080; their opening times are 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-5pm on Saturdays.

In the meantime, you may find the following articles helpful:

Our back pain experts answer your questions | AXA Health

Top tips to prevent back pain from driving | AXA Health

Taking a break from your screen | AXA Health

References

NHS, 2019. Why we should sit less. Retrieved here: Why we should sit less - NHS (www.nhs.uk). (Accessed 11 May 2021).

BMJ, 2000. Back pain in Britain: comparison of two prevalence surveys at an interval of 10 years. Retrieved here: Back pain in Britain: comparison of two prevalence surveys at an interval of 10 years | The BMJ. (Accessed 11 May 2021).

Psychology Today, 2014. What Sitting Does to Your Psyche. Retrieved here: What Sitting Does to Your Psyche | Psychology Today. (Accessed 11 May 2021).

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