Unless you’re a yoga instructor or physical therapist, chances are you give as much thought to your spine health as you do the fitness of your gall bladder. You know your spine is there—it even makes itself known on a regular basis—but prioritizing the need to nourish it probably falls on the same rung of importance as caring for your lymph nodes.
And yet, your spine is far more important than you might realize. Comprised of 33 individual bones stacked one on top of the other, your vertebral column—or spine—operates as the primary foundation of your entire body. Thanks to its intricate structure, as well as muscles, tendons and ligaments, your spine allows you to stand (and sit!), twist, bend, dance, make love, swim, run, bicycle, climb—you name it. Separated into five regions—your cervical spine (or neck), your thoracic spine (mid-back), your lumbar spine (lower back), your sacrum (the “bridge” between your hips and spinal cord), and your coccyx—your spine also protects your spinal cord, a part of your central nervous system that forms a link between your brain and the rest of your body and governs movement, behavior, even the ability to urinate.
Sound vital? That’s because it is. Damage to your spine—through injury, infection, a sedentary lifestyle, scoliosis, poor posture, disease, age, or more—can wreak havoc on your entire system, generating everything from tingling in your hands to pain and paralysis.
With that in mind, we’ve put together our six best tips on how to nurture this oh-so-critical component of your body. Read on.
1. Tone up your core
The benefits of consistent, strength-building exercises are widely touted, but did you know that paying particular mind to your core muscles can lead to better posture, decreased back pain and a reduced risk of injury? This is because those muscles—in your abdomen, obliques, pelvic region and lower back—help take the pressure off your lumbar spine and support your entire vertebral column while also keeping you flexible. Plank is often referred to as “the definitive core exercise” as it profoundly (and quickly) strengthens these muscles (and can be done anywhere, anytime, by just about anyone) but it’s not the only option available. Swimming, leg raises and bridge are effective as well.
2. Limit sitting time
Humans were not built to endure eight to ten hours of sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen. And yet, given the prevalence of desk jobs, most of us don’t think twice about spending the lion’s share of our life on our rump. Over time, this can have significant consequences.
Those abovementioned core muscles go underworked, to be sure, but sitting also, as WebMD reminds us, “puts huge stress on your back muscles, neck and spine.” (It’s even worse if you slouch.) Sitting can also compress your spinal cord and result in a litany of symptoms that may require “anything from supportive care to emergency surgery,” says John Hopkins Medicine. If you’re a slave to your desk—or a slave to any of your electronics, especially your T.V.—set a tomato timer and rise, stretch and move every 20-25 minutes.
3. Invest in ergonomic office furniture
If you must sit for a large part of your day, invest in ergonomic office equipment. Through innovative designs and technology, ergonomic furniture is geared specifically to supporting the spine, reducing pressure on the hips and encouraging good posture. Enhanced productivity and less pain are just two of the benefits you might find on top of a healthier spine.
4. Maintain a healthy weight
Carrying extra pounds on your frame isn’t just a burden to your self-confidence and overall wellness—it can also be deleterious to your spinal health. Why? That extra weight your spine must support creates enormous strain for it, and may substantially contribute to symptoms associated with osteoporosis, osteoid arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease and more. In terms of excess weight, the most vulnerable part of your spine is your lumbar region—which is responsible for causing pain for 80% of adults at some point in their life.
5. Use mindfulness when you’re on your phone
“Tech neck” has a clever ring to it but there’s nothing cute about it: According to new research released in Surgery Technology International, using your smartphone—whether it’s checking out Facebook or reading an email—puts serious stress on your neck and spine and may cause poor posture (a predecessor to a slew of spinal ailments). As Shape reports, “At zero degrees—when you’re standing up straight—your neck holds the actual weight of your head (about 10 to 12 pounds). But with every degree you tilt forward (like when you’re scrolling through Instagram or totally lost in Candy Crush), that weight increases. At 15 degrees—a slight lean—your spine is experiencing 27 pounds of force, and by 60 degrees it’s feeling a full 60 pounds. Day after day, this extra weight can lead to early wear and tear and degeneration, which could even eventually require surgery.”
Your solution? Honor the natural shape of your spine, use mindfulness to keep from slouching and tell your phone who’s boss by not bowing down to it but raising it up to your face. At the same time, spread out your screen time and pace while you’re conducting business on your phone or having a conversation.
6. Rest—and repair—well
Sleep is non-negotiable but how you sleep can make a huge difference to the health of your spine. Your bed ought to be firm enough to support your muscles and bones, but also comfortable enough to facilitate a deep slumber. At the same time, aim to sleep in a fetal position. Sleeping on your side with your legs drawn up “can help open up the joints in the spine and relieve pressure by reducing the curvature of the spine,” the
National Institutes of Health reports. And if you need even more love than a good night’s sleep, consider a therapeutic massage, which can increase blood flow and bring healing nutrients to your spine. You don’t need to a grow a backbone, after all, but you do need to champion the one you have.