Exercises for a healthy spine
This is in no way intended as a definitive collection of exercises – experiment and find some that suit you. The ones shown are commonly found useful in gently encouraging freer movement and avoiding the stiffness which can develop from prolonged static postures such as sitting or bending. If the exercises are painful, try doing them more gently through a smaller range. If a particular exercise causes dizziness, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, or makes you feel unwell, try a different one.
The neck and trunk exercises could be of use to anyone who sits at a desk as part of their daily work. They are quick and easy, and don’t have to get in the way of work. Try getting into a routine of doing some throughout the day, current recommendations suggest hourly exercises, ideally getting up for a quick walk too. For those experiencing neck pain, you actually might find it useful to do them more often than this.
The lying exercises are great for easing acute back pain and getting some easy movement started. As your back settles try to keep moving as much as possible, exercises here will concentrate on regaining full movement and building core strength to support the back. Regular walking will generally help with this too. Find what you can comfortably manage without flaring up your pain and then try to gradually build on this.
Figure 1 shows what happens to the spine as gravity starts to take control in prolonged sitting, putting tension into the whole back and neck.
Figure 2 shows that if we sit tall; tucking the chin in, lifting the breastbone and rolling our pelvis forwards slightly, we take the strain out of the system.
This stretch was designed to counteract some of the strains produced by working at a desk. Sit tall as in Figure 2, lifting the breastbone and tucking the chin in. Knees should be wider than hips. Roll shoulders down and back, stretch the arms out to the sides and spread the fingers wide, trying to point the thumbs backwards. Breathe in deeply from the stomach and gently out through the mouth for three or four long cycles.
Basic shoulder rolling
With a tall spine, roll the shoulders up towards your ears, then round and back to stretch across the chest and the top of the shoulders. (It’s natural to hear a few clicks and crunches here!) Repeat a few times.
Pelvic clock in sitting
Imagine your pelvis as a bowl with a ball in the centre of it – on its inside is the face of a clock. As you soften your back, dip your breastbone and roll the pelvis backwards, the ball rolls up to the 12 o’clock position. Now lift the breastbone and roll the pelvis forwards to slightly arch the back, the ball rolls to the 6 o’clock position. Find a balance between these two movements – this is the spine’s neutral position. Keeping the chest lifted now try and move the ball between the 3 and 9 o’clock positions by making the weight shift between either buttock. For a further stretch, keep extending through your trunk muscles to lift alternate shoulders. Repeat a few times.
Great for mobilising stiff necks! Sit tall, breastbone lifted and shoulders pulled down and back. Look at something at eye-level to keep your head level, tuck your chin in and draw your head backwards to feel a light stretch at the back of the neck and then release again. Do this three times and then leave it for a bit. If you find it difficult to feel the movement, try it standing with your back to a wall to stabilise your shoulders, a car seat with a head rest will do the same thing.
With a tall spine, slowly turn both directions to feel a stretch in your trunk. Just go as far as you can comfortably go, don’t force the movement.
Long neck stretches
We commonly hold tension in the muscles of the neck and shoulder. Find which areas are tight for you and work into them. Stretches should last for around 30 seconds – start gently, just taking the slack up out of the muscle. Take a slow, deep breath in and then stretch slowly and smoothly on your outbreath – just going to where you feel a good stretch, not to where it’s painful. Reaching the arm away at the same time, or tucking it behind your back, will give you more of a stretch.
This position can be useful in relieving muscle spasm in the back. See if you can combine it with lying on a hot water bottle or heatpack – make sure it’s not too hot first! If you have a painful neck, try placing the hot water bottle or heatpack into the nape of the neck and gently stretching in this position. Concentrate on breathing in slowly and deeply from the stomach followed by a long gentle out breath, continuing this for several minutes. Reach and leave this position from side-lying to keep the back more relaxed.
Pelvic clock in lying
Imagine your pelvis as a bowl with a ball in the centre of it – on its inside is the face of a clock. As you flatten your back into the floor your pelvis turns upwards and the ball rolls up to the 12 o’clock position. Gently arch your back and the ball rolls to 6 o’clock. Letting the knees drop slightly to either side will roll it from 3 to 9 o’clock. Gently move between these points for a few minutes with steady, even breathing.