How To Walk Your Way To A Better Back
How To Walk Your Way To A Better Back
If you have visited our office, there is a good chance you have been advised to walk. There are many reasons why we recommend this gentle form of exercise, especially for those with back pain. But, when you are struggling to move, the idea of walking may seem counterintuitive.
In this article, we share why walking is therapeutic: for you, your back, and your health. We talk about how to establish a sensible program. And we share ways to reduce — even eliminate — potential adverse outcomes so you can get a better back, sooner.
First, let’s take a look at the back’s beautiful biology because it will help to make sense of the benefits of a regular stroll.
About Your Back
Our incredible bodies and backs are made for moving…
Vertebra and Joints
Throughout the body, we have joints that swing, twist, or slide to allow motion. In the spine, there are facet joints that guide and limit movement, allowing flexion and extension (forward and backward bending). Then there are the intervertebral connections, where the vertebrae connect. There are many joints in the spine!
There are also bones aplenty; (usually) seven cervical, 12 thoracic, and five lumbar vertebrae, plus the sacrum, the coccyx, and the pelvis. Plus, that incredible 10-pound skull that sits on top as our crowning glory. Each vertebra is connected to another above and below through the intervertebral and facet joints (more on these shortly). The pelvic joints attach to the sacrum at the back and via the symphysis pubis at the front. This complex system enables strength, function, and movement. It’s an impressive design!
In between our vertebrae (except where the top two bones connect) sits an appropriately named intervertebral disc (IVD). Each is made from two components: the annulus fibrosus and the nucleus pulposus. The annulus is super strong and contains water and fibrous tissue. It is rather like the outer layers of an onion, each layer proving strength to its other layers and itself as a whole. The nucleus — a gel-like substance — sits in the middle like the jelly at a donut’s center, held in place by the annulus.
The intervertebral discs don’t get their nourishment via the usual route: blood flow. Instead, they osmotically absorb nutrients. The key to this process? Movement! As we walk, we move our spines. This motion and compression deliver goodies into the IVD and removes waste. Ingenious!
The facet joints poke out from each vertebra at the back and on both sides (except for the uniquely designed C1 which pivots on the upward prong of the C2 right below it). The facets above and below beautifully dovetail to provide strength, stability, and function. These joints are almost in constant use and, as such, can experience inflammation and injury: They can hurt!
As the study Facet joint syndrome: from diagnosis to interventional management, says, “Lumbar facet joints constitute a common source of pain accounting of 15–45%.” This is one of the issues that keep us so busy in practice, and it’s also one of the reasons we strongly recommend you walk regularly.
Our many muscles support and shift us. In our backs, there are stabilizing muscles, muscles that tilt, twist, and bend us, and those that serve both functions. When we walk, these work in unison so we can consistently propel ourselves in a controlled manner and not find ourselves crumpled on the ground.
If we stripped back the body’s tissues and looked at the fascia alone, we could almost see ourselves. See, this fibrous connective tissue covers every bodily structure. As the article Anatomy, Fascia says, this tissue creates “a structural continuity that gives form and function to every tissue and organ.” In essence, it holds everything together and makes it work.
Often when people talk about back pain, the fascia is forgotten, so we wanted to touch on it here.
Study.com puts it succinctly:
Imagine your body being wrapped entirely in plastic wrap. When you tug on one part of the wrap, it will tighten elsewhere. If you tugged hard enough, the wrap could tear anywhere there is enough tension placed upon it.
With that under the belt, let’s explore…
The Benefits of Walking
While a regular saunter may not feel like it’s changing your internal structure, it, quite simply, is. The benefits may include:
– Maintenance of bone density
– Enhanced blood flow
– Strengthened muscles
– Fascial stretching
– Pushing nourishment into, and removing waste from, your intervertebral discs (with faster walking)
– Reduced back pain
– Elevated mood (which helps to lessen pain and, well, feels good)!
Walking can also restore healthier joint motion. This benefit deserves special mention because its repercussions are profound. As the joints move, they fire off nerve impulses that tell the body where it is in space. If this weren’t the case, we’d find it incredibly difficult to stand up or move. This is known as proprioception.
However, these constantly firing packets of information are so much more than mere positional sensors. As Dr. Roger Sperry, neurobiologist and Nobel Laureate in Medicine, said, “90% of the stimulation and nutrition to the brain is generated by the movement of the spine.”
When you receive regular Chiropractic care to restore optimal spinal motion and then walk to maintain this change, you can literally, positively, powerfully change your brain and your health.
Great, so you’re convinced! Let’s take a look at how to set appropriate goals.
A well-known way to set goals is called the S.M.A.R.T. method. It breaks down important considerations so you can plan, implement, track, and succeed.
S – Specific
If you are starting out, you might choose to walk for 20 minutes, three times per week. If your fitness is good, you might opt for a higher commitment and walk for 40 minutes, five times per week. Be specific about your goal.
M – Measurable
As the famous Peter Drucker quote says, “What gets measured, gets managed.” Grab a diary and keep track of the times, distances, steps you cover. Also, note any pain. This can be a reference, an evidence-based way to monitor your progress. If you experience a pain flare, you can better understand how your walking routine may have contributed and adjust accordingly. If you are doing well, you’ll know when to safely up the ante.
A – Attainable
Is your goal attainable? It’s an important question. Just like with the next point, if you cannot fulfill promises you make to yourself, the whispers of procrastination and failure may push you off course.
Tip: The right walking companion can be a game-changer. When you don’t feel motivated, they will inspire you (or nag, either way, it works). You can return the favor.
R – Realistic
If you have significant back pain, you are not going to walk a marathon in seven days’ time. This isn’t a sensible idea. If you have chronic spinal discomfort, instead, walking up and down your hallway once per day might be a more realist place to start.
T – Timely
Urgency can inspire. Decide that you will be walking for x minutes, x times per week by x date. Now hop to it!
Ok, so you’ve got a plan forming gently in your mind, let’s talk about the details…
The recovery time from a walk is usually fast, so engaging frequency often suits. If you are unfit or in considerable pain, begin two to three times per week. If you are raring to go and able, five to seven times per week might suit you perfectly.
Intensity, duration and surface options
Many of our patients ask…
“Where should I start?”
“What should my goal be?”
“What surface should I walk on?”
Have a chat with your Chiropractor before you decide on the intensity and duration as it does depend on your health and current capability.
If you are older, experience balance issues, or have significant pain, you can begin slowly on a treadmill (so you have handles to grasp), in a pool (where you cannot fall and the load is lightened thanks to the water) or stroll around your house a number of times.
If you are a lover of an amble, who’d like to commit to something more, the call of the wildness and uneven surfaces might appeal.
If you fall in between? Or maybe have back pain and want to focus on walking to improve your health and ease your discomfort? Set a program of 30 minutes, three times per week. Then return to ‘measurable’ and notice how you feel and assess your progress. Too easy? Speed up your pace, extend the time, or walk farther.
Tip: You should always remain able to maintain a conversation.
Now that you’ve got a plan, there is another important frequently asked question we need to answer… “But what if walking makes me hurt?” and “What can I do to reduce the risk of any side effects?”
How to Increase Positive Outcomes
When you begin a walking program, as with any other physical activity, it is wise to consult your health professional for advice. Wonderfully, walking is a lower impact and risk. Still, there are ways to improve your results and reduce your risk of injury and pain.
Five stretches and a strengthening exercise
Stretching can ease tight muscles and calm back pain. Here are five we often recommend to our back pain patients that are also helpful for maintaining a walking routine.
Tip 1: For every stretch, hold each repetition for around 30 seconds and then repeat three times on each side.
Tip 2: When you feel a comfortable stretch, hold. Stretching should never be painful.
It’s super easy to stretch your calf muscles, and there are a number of ways to do so. We like these two simple stretches.
Gastrocnemius (Calf) Stretch
Stand facing a wall. Place your hands on the wall in front of you at eye height. Place your heel on the ground, raise the toes of the same foot up the wall to approximately 45 degrees. With a straight knee and body, bring the hip on the same side closer to the wall. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds then repeat with your other leg.
Soleus (Deep Calf) Stretch
From the gastrocnemius stretch position above, move your right foot forward a few inches and bend your right knee.
Continue to keep your heel on the floor, and gently lean your body forward. Keep your pelvis tucked under and don’t arch your foot.
Your right knee should be over and in front of your right foot. Hold for 30 seconds. You will feel a stretch in the lower third of your right calf muscle. Repeat for your other leg.
Sit down. Stretch your leg out in front with a straightened knee and raise your toes to the ceiling. With your body upright and your lumbar curve maintained, bend forward from your hips.
We spend so much time not moving that our shoulders often roll forward, and our pecs tighten, leading to a hunched over posture. When we walk, we want to unfurl these muscles, draw back your shoulders, and allow an open chest to take in the air easily.
To stretch your pecs, stand facing a corner. Raise your arms directly out to the side, so they lie in the horizontal plane. Maintaining this position, bend your elbows, so your hands reach toward to sky. Next, move into the corner so your forearm can rest comfortably on the corner walls. Hold your tummy muscles in and gently push forward towards the wall until you feel a stretch across your chest on both sides.
The figure-four stretch releases tension in the lower back by focusing on the hip flexors, glutes, and piriformis. It’s similar to the knee-to-chest stretch in form and execution, but the figure-four stretch is deeper. You can think of the knee-to-chest stretch as a warm-up to the figure-four stretch.
The seated figure-four stretch described below is the same as described in the lumbopelvic PT manual and there are also a couple variations to this stretch as well which we will explain below.
This stretch is to be done seated, while sitting with good posture (back straight towards the edge of your seat and a slight down grade to your thighs. Next, cross one leg over the other, resting your ankle on your knee. From this position, bend at the waist, lowering your torso toward your legs. During this you should feel a stretch in the guteal region. To achieve a different direction of stretch with this technique, perform the following variations: lean to the right; lean straight forward; lean to the left.
This stretched may be held for up to 20 seconds for each variation and repeated twice.
Stand with your hand against a wall for support. Bring your body close enough so you will remain in a straight position vertically. Raise your outside foot to rest in your hand on the same side. Pull your foot gently towards your bottom.
Note: If you cannot do this comfortably, do not force it!
A regular walking routine will strengthen muscles through use. However, we often see patients who have faulty core muscles. These can be the initial cause of, or significantly contribute to, back pain. As we walk, a weak core can lead to increased pressure placed through our spine. This we need to avoid.
As with stretches, there are a range of available options. The easiest? Focus on your lower tummy muscles. These muscles sit above your pelvic bones and below your belly button. Hold them tight. Imagine bringing them in and up towards the middle of your back. They should now feel firm. As with stretching, hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times per day.
Learn more about Core Strengthening
Remarkably, most of the human body is made up of water. We use this fluid for daily functions, including sweating to cool us down. When we exercise, especially on a warm day, we need to ensure we maintain adequate hydration levels.
An average we should drink around 1 L of water for every 50 lbs body weight day. Choose water. If you are experiencing muscle pain through exercise, also consuming electrolytes may help. Check out our hydration guide for a simple sports drink you can make.
Using an ice pack can be therapeutic for those with an inflamed back. If this were to happen after a walk, stop. Opt for melting iced water applied through a wet towel. Repeat for 10 minutes. A study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that re-injury was more likely following ice treatment, so rest for 30 minutes following application.
Have you heard about the wonders of turmeric and its main active ingredient, curcumin? This ancient spice may deliver modern-day relief for those with back pain. As the article The Effects of Curcumin in Decreasing Pain in Patients with Osteoarthritis said, the “use of curcumin significantly decreased pain severity in patients with osteoarthritis, with symptoms improving within 4-6 weeks.“
If you should find your back pain flares after walking, curcumin’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may calm your discomfort. As back pain is regularly inflammatory in nature, using this as a preventative measure is also a wise idea.
Walk Your Way To A Better Back Today
Walking is a wonderful way to strengthen your back, encourage healthy bones, muscles, and joints, and restore your health. It is also a lower impact exercise that our patients tend to both love and be able to do. Dedicating yourself to a regular walking routine can get you a better back, sooner. If you have questions about starting a back routine let us know at 773.878.7330.
Dr. DeFabio is a highly regarded chiropractor in Chicago who focuses on helping his patients achieve optimal health and wellness. He takes a holistic approach to care, treating symptoms and addressing underlying issues to promote long-term healing. Dr. DeFabio is passionate about empowering his patients to take control of their health and live their best lives. You can find him surfing, skateboarding, and volunteering at the Lakeview Food Pantry when he’s not in the office.