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Strengthen your core to avoid lower back pain

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Editor’s note: “Focus on Fitness” is a Clarion feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Check here weekly great information and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

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Lower back pain is something most of us experience at some time in our lives. In many cases this pain can be avoided by maintaining fitness in the core muscles. In some cases such as when there has been a trauma, or a congenital problem is present, a professional may need to be consulted. Doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors and rolfers are good resources to help with lower back pain.

The abdominal muscles hold in the visceral contents of the body (diaphragm, stomach, intestines), which in turn support the lower back. When the abdominal muscles are not fit this support is reduced. This not only increases the likelihood of injury, it also results in more long-term wear and tear. Improving the fitness of muscles along the side of the body and at the lower back will improve support also. Below is a set of exercises you will find helpful in doing this. Do them to overload — that burning sensation you feel in the muscles as they tire — three or more times per week. After 6-8 weeks of doing the exercises you may work to failure.

Crunches: Do these with your feet raised up off of the floor and knees bent at about 90 degrees. Cross your arms over on your chest and grab your shoulders. Lift your upper back and shoulders off the floor, hold for two to three seconds and go back down.

Hip-ups: In the crunch position described above, raise the hips and bottom up off the floor, then back down.

Side-ups: Lie on your side with hands behind your head. Raise your shoulder up off the floor, hold for two to three seconds and go back down. Repeat on other side.

Superman: Lie on your stomach with arms stretched out in front of you. Lift your chest up off the floor and hold for two to three seconds.

Another source of back pain is a lack of flexibility in the hamstring muscles. The hamstrings attach at the lower back. If they are too tight they can pull on the lower back and cause pain. The single leg hamstring stretch is an excellent choice to stretch this muscle group. Another stretch that may be helpful is the side stretch. You should stretch at least 3 days a week, but you may stretch everyday.

Single-leg hamstring stretch: Sit with your right leg straight out in front of you and your left leg bent to the inside (foot is beside knee). Lean forward and reach for your toes, go far enough to feel a stretch but not be in pain. Hold the stretch for 40 seconds and then repeat on left side.

Side stretch: Stand up straight with your feet wide and your right arm bent over your head, lean directly to the left. Repeat on your left side. 

It may also be helpful to strengthen the hip muscles. In October I shared an exercise tool that can be used to improve ankle pain. It can also be used to strengthen your hip muscles. Go to http://peninsulaclarion.com/community/2011-10-07/physical-therapy-for-th... to view the article describing the exercise tool. You may tie the tubing to the shoes rather than using the clips if you wish. These exercises should be done three days a week.

Hip exercises: While in seated position and hooked into the tool scoot back to get some tension on the band. Lift your heel off of the floor and pull your right leg toward your chest. Hold for two to three seconds then go back down. Repeat to overload. Repeat on left side.

If any of these exercises cause pain, discontinue and consult a professional. Remember it takes 6-8 weeks to make major gains in fitness, so stick with it! Keep in mind that regardless of how fit you are it is important to use proper lifting technique (bend at the knees not the back) and do not try to lift something that is too heavy for you. Avoid twisting your back when you are moving something, this includes shoveling snow. Avoid slips, trips and falls by slowing down in slippery conditions and using cleats when appropriate. 

 Charlie Stephens is a retired P.E. Teacher and owns/operates Kenai Sport & Train, Inc. which specializes in P.E. consulting. He can be reached at ccstephens@gci.net

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