Soothe my back, stop the clicking
January 14, 2013 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm a mid-30s female, and I am finding my back is becoming less and flexible over the years while my core and upper body are getting weaker. How can I fix this?

I am of average weight but carry all the excess in my tummy. I know I walk with a bad posture and hunch while working at my computer. I occasionally suffer from a pinched nerve in the thoracic region which can be excruciating, I have seen physiotherapists for this when it is at its worst. I also get bad 'mouse arm' when I've worked too much. In the past year, I also now find I have occasional pain in the front of my right shoulder (I mouse with my right hand). In the past couple of months, every time I turn my neck, I hear a clicking sound.

I'm in an office environment. Since November I get 40 minutes a day exercise, bike commuting. I bought a new bed then, too. In the past I enjoyed: skating, ballet. I have found useful: restorative yoga, running occasionally. I don't enjoy: swimming, gyms (but if essential would rejoin one), crunches/pushups/stationery or repetitive exercise.

I'm looking for practical advice to strengthen my core (even advice like - should I use a backpack instead of a handbag), specific exercises and/or videos, and ways to stretch and strengthen my back. Thanks!
posted by wingless_angel to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not great at health and fitness, but: is there a yoga studio close to your office? You mention enjoying yoga, and I've found that on the days when I attend a yoga class over lunch, I return to my desk with better posture. Even going once a week has made significant improvement in the way I sit at a desk, my computer arm, and the pinched nerve business.
posted by AmandaA at 11:23 AM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

More yoga! Pilates! They are both amazing for strengthening your core (including muscles you didn't even know you had) and making your back happy and healthy.
posted by Grandysaur at 11:24 AM on January 14, 2013

Rodney Yee, Power Yoga for Flexibility. I was shocked to find myself touching my toes again after only a week or two. And my back doesn't hurt when I get up in the morning anymore!
posted by scottatdrake at 11:30 AM on January 14, 2013

Pilates, including sessions with a private trainer. I cannot stress how life-changing this has been for me (age 40-mumble, inflexible, overweight). If taught right, it is not repetitive at all, and will really teach you to feel instinctively how all the different parts of your body relate to your core.
posted by matildaben at 11:32 AM on January 14, 2013

Yeah, yoga and pilates are both amazing for your core.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:53 AM on January 14, 2013

Best answer: Focused Pilates done right. I sometimes think it's a little silly, but nothing gets me walking taller and protecting my back with a tight stomach the way regular (2x/week) Pilates does. I remember thinking that the seat in my car was adjusted wrong one day last summer, and then realized that I was actually just sitting up taller without even noticing. I just do the floor routine at home on a yoga mat, but I recommend going to at least a few classes to make sure you're doing the movements correctly.

Hot yoga, also done regularly, is great for backwards and forwards spine flexibility (just don't get overenthusiastic and stretch TOO far the first couple times like I did).

I also found that training myself to sleep on my back really helped with the one pinched shoulder thing I get sometimes. Not sure how you sleep, but it can help.
posted by peachfuzz at 11:59 AM on January 14, 2013

You mentioned you carry your excess in weight in your tummy. Have you ever heard of diastasis recti? It's a separation of the abdominal muscles that is often a result of pregnancy. If you have this, crunches and situps may actually make it worse, and you need to strengthen your transverse abdominals before returning to more traditional types of ab exercises. If you Google it, there are a lot of resources and videos that will teach you the specific exercises that help.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:59 AM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I have taken several yoga classes (and one pilates mat class) but find anything but restorative too intense. Would this improve over time or is there something else I should be doing to be able to get through a yoga or pilates class?
posted by wingless_angel at 12:00 PM on January 14, 2013

Best answer: See a qualified PT, or research basic postural assessment & correction and implement a sound fitness routine of appropriate stretching and strengthening. Yoga/pilates can be a part of the solution, but your particular muscoloskeletal issues aren't necessarily going to be solved (without further risk) by visiting a yoga studio once a week with a couple dozen other people.

Write up on APT
Fixing 'computer guy' posture
Kelly Starrett on postural habituation
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 12:01 PM on January 14, 2013 [6 favorites]

Start small with a 1 on 1 class for pilates, and work your way up. I remember being destroyed by my first few pilates classes, but it does get better!
posted by Grandysaur at 12:02 PM on January 14, 2013

Yes, Kandarp is correct, see a qualified physical therapist! This is exactly what they do. I'm afraid you can't count the bike riding as upper body or core work, and in fact, unless you've got a really well-fitted bike, it's probably a net loss for your back. One thing I can tell you for sure is to not use a backpack, ever, and try to keep weight off your shoulders as best you can. Definitely terrible for the upper back/spine.
posted by facetious at 12:06 PM on January 14, 2013

Consider a standing desk.
posted by mhoye at 12:06 PM on January 14, 2013

Thirding Kandarp. Physical therapy is the place to go, strength is the attribute to be improved, and yoga only improves strength somewhat.

I would add that barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells are the optimal method to improve strength. Developing a greater-than-bodyweight deadlift helped me and my girlfriend with postural issues and intermittent back pain. Without question the deadlift is the most efficient way to strengthen your back.
posted by daveliepmann at 12:18 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hello younger me. How do you carry stuff on your bike? I commuted for many years with a messenger bag and a backpack. When I switched to panniers, my back and shoulders felt light-years better. My posture is still dreadful, however.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 12:41 PM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would this improve over time

Yes, yoga is amazingly cumulative, and you do improve over time. But I think you would want to talk with a teacher in advance and maybe a doc to figure out how to start working up from gentle yoga to a practice that will do more for your core.
posted by Miko at 12:55 PM on January 14, 2013

Best answer: While I'm sure there are tons of abdominal exercises that people could recommend and that would be helpful, the best that I know of - both of which helped me tremendously with back and core strength (and this strength and muscle usage in general is what will help with your flexibility) are the plank and the side plank. Work towards holding plank for 45 seconds and side plank for 30 seconds on each side. Go into child's pose after each. After warming your muscles with those, you should do some back stretches, but I'm sorry; I don't know of any specific ones. Do this once a day. Simple, fast.

Disclaimer: I am not a fitness guru, just a regular non-athletic person who did a bootcamp for a year and did these each class. My back was so happy from these two exercises that I have kept doing them even though, alas, I am not fit any longer.
posted by kitcat at 1:21 PM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

First, I would recommend looking for a pilates-based physical therapy practice. The PTs there will use a pilates-based approach to help you build core strength, but will be much better trained to diagnose the source of your pain and suggest exercises that will actually help than a pilates or yoga teacher.

Second, I would look at your desk at work. Do you have a chair that's providing adequate lumbar support? Are your keyboard and computer screen at the proper height to work comfortably? Do you stand up and walk around for a few minutes every hour? Sitting is terrible for your back, and your PT will probably be able to give you advice about how to minimize the impact.

Finally, are there studios or rinks in your town that offer ballet or skating classes for adults? You'll be much more motivated to work on your core strength if you can feel yourself getting better at an activity you enjoy than if you're doing just because you should.
posted by psycheslamp at 1:57 PM on January 14, 2013

Best answer: Robin McKenzie's exercises are excellent and have been recommended to me by physical therapists. I do the Treat Your Own Neck exercises, and it also made me realize that I needed cervical support when I sleep (I just roll up a towel under my neck). Also a product called the Back Vitalizer makes a huge difference for me when sitting for extended periods (I prefer it to the McKenzie support products).
posted by radioamy at 3:02 PM on January 14, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all, lots of good suggestions here. Annoyingly, I just moved countries and don't have insurance coverage for PT here, will have to look into that.
posted by wingless_angel at 12:20 AM on January 15, 2013

Try out lower back/glute/hip stretches and exercises, and develop a 15-30 minute routine that you feel comfortable doing every morning and evening. That's it!
posted by benbenson at 11:24 AM on January 15, 2013

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