Imagine a culture in which back pain barely exists. It wouldn’t be our culture, that’s for certain. With 80 to 90 percent of Americans experiencing back pain at one point in their lives, “oh, my aching back” is almost a cliché. Subsequently, the list of spine conditions and procedures Americans commonly experience and undergo is a long one.
It turns out, however, that there are many cultures that avoid back pain altogether, and that has a lot to do with posture, and specifically, the way we bend over. Think of the daily activities during which we bend: putting on our pants and socks, picking up objects from the floor, doing household chores, even putting a leash on a dog—the list is endless.
Although we are largely unaware of it, from the moment we wake up in the morning until we are prone again lying in bed at night, we bend over from 2,000 to 4,000 times a day! In this unbalanced state, we barely equalize by bending backwards only several hundred times a day. All of this forward bending, particularly at the angle of about 20 percent flexion of the spine in a typical motion, means that over time, we are putting enormous extra stress on the back.
But it isn’t just the number of times we bend over, it is the way we bend over. Almost everyone in our culture bends forward from the stomach, which in the process curves the spine in the shape of the letter “C” causing a stress on the back. But experts studying other cultures have noticed that in places like Africa, South America and India, for example, people bend over with their backs nearly straight, making the back flat, like a table top, and parallel to the ground. Canadian expert Stuart McGill, quoted in an NPR article, says this type of bending is called “hip hinging” (bending from the hips as opposed to bending at the stomach), and he has spent his career advocating for this form of bending being better for us than what we typically do.
Some of the benefits of “hip hinging” are that it:
- Neutrally positions the spine
- Lessens stress on the spinal discs
- Positively engages gluteal muscles
- Stretches hamstrings (typically tight in Americans)
- Takes pressure off the back muscles
How to Bend by “Hip Hinging”
Think yoga. Weightlifters doing a deadlift. Football players at the line of scrimmage. These are “hip hinging” aficionados. Many experts who work with people to cure or avoid back pain advocate hip hinging. These include proponents of a popular method called the Gokhale Method. This method teaches people to bend over using the posture that is common in many other back-pain-free parts of the world.
Practice Proper Posture
Bad bending seems to go hand in hand with bad posture. It is widely acknowledged that poor posture is a major cause of back pain and a myriad of other physical woes. Being conscious of what you can do to facilitate proper posture is an important part of alleviating back pain, and of overall good health. Below are some posture tips.
Lift with care-When lifting heavy objects in particular, keep your chest forward, bend at the hips (not with the back) and keep the weight you are lifting as close to your body as possible.
Sit with support-Keep your back straight and flush with the chair back. Use a cushion to support the lower back whenever possible. While sitting, don’t hunch over; keep your shoulders tall with your head over your spine.
Walk tall-Keep your head above your spine, and shoulders back (practice pinching your shoulder blades together toward each other). As you walk, land on your heels and roll forward, pushing off on the front of the feet.
Be Good to Your Back
Here are some other steps you can take to prevent back problems.
Strengthen your core muscles-This not only strengthens the back, but strong abdominal muscles create a balance to help support the back, assist posture and is known to help prevent back injuries.
Stretch for a balanced program-Flexible muscles and ligaments help prevent the stiffness that can contribute to back pain and improve blood flow and nutrients. Stretching is also an important balance to strengthening.
Take care to eat a balanced diet-A good diet helps keep weight stable. In addition, good nutrition (such as an anti-inflammatory diet) helps avoid the effects of inflammation, which plays a role in chronic disease.
Try to maintain a healthy weight. It is well documented that excess weight contributes to back pain. Staying within 10 pounds of your ideal weight is a good goal. This helps to avoid common problems, such as a herniated disc.