Important notice: I am not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be. The below is an n=1 sample that relates only to me and my specific problem. Although I believe the advice will help many, it may not help you.
I have suffered from a dull pain in my lower back for nearly ten years. It is made worse by sitting down, I can’t sit on a chair without a back and it sometimes makes even lying down painful – particularly upon waking in the morning. I have seen chiropracters, osteopaths, physiotherapists, doctors, had scans, x-rays and tried all manner of things. Until now, I haven’t had much success in taming the pain.
A couple years ago, I did have some success following a series of Feldenkrais routines, which I practised every day for about 45 minutes a day for 9 or so months. The pain eased (did not disappear) for a few months, and I stopped the routines. When you are running, cycling, swimming doing regular bodyweight exercises, have a job and kids something had to give. Of course, what that meant was the back pain began to creep back.
It had got to be about as bad as it ever was about three weeks ago, when I suddenly came across a solution that not only works – but I can easily slip into my busy life. Although the back pain hasn’t gone, it is much reduced.
Before revealing what it is, it may be worth repeating this para from my “Does Being Physically FIt Make You Smarter” post.
The Malleable Body
We all know that exercise is good for the body, doing more of it, in general, makes us incrementally stronger, flexible and durable. Fitness is a continuum, not a destination. Meaning that starting it, or doing more of it this month than last month, on the whole, means we move in the right direction along the continuum.
In this way the body is malleable, (most) of us can choose how parts of it are formed (or re-formed) and how it can perform.
Trying to hold the plank position for more than 30 seconds feels almost impossible the first time you do it, but practice it everyday for a month and you may even be able to complete the 5 minute challenge on Tribesports.
Confined to a lesser degree than we often think by anatomy, our bodies react, or slowly form, to fit our actualised experience. It does this by making small – but accumulating – adaptive changes every time the body experiences an experience. If it experiences the same experience over and over again, those small adaptive changes become big changes. That’s what happens when you do bicep curls over and over again for weeks on end – you get big biceps.
But what about the lower back
Let’s think about sitting at a desk for six to eight hours a day. All the muscles in and around the lower back are relaxed. Your body looks at this situation, and thinks to itself. OK, all these muscles – glutes, abs etc they are all relaxed. This beast doesn’t have much use for them, instead of me keeping them strong by expending the energy that’s just come in from that croissant, I’ll store the excess energy in these fat cells around his middle – just in case he has need for them in the future.
Those muscles- muscles required to assist the lower back – weaken and atrophy. And the lower back has to take on the weight of the upper body all by itself. No wonder it sends constant screams up to the brain to make changes.
This worked for me. It is simple, I can use it all day, everyday and it fits right into my daily routine. I found it in Kelly Starret’s book “How to be a Supple Leopard” (which I highly highly recommend) and it is his guide to standing (or, as he says, going through the Brace Sequence).
Yes, that’s all there is to it. Standing – but in the right way. You can do it everywhere, at work, waiting for a bus, waiting in line for a croissant. And it is amazingly simple, boiling down to two key factors:
1. tensing your buttocks/glutes
2. keeping your abs semi-tense
OK, so it is a little bit more nuanced than that – but not more – and here is the man himself to describe it:
Key thing to remember. The Malleable Body is a dynamic function of all your past experiences. If all your past experiences have lead you to do something sub-optimally it will take time for your body to adapt to something closer to optimal. This could be months – but you should see incremental changes way before then.
Standing right got me 60% there, and once you’ve got standing off pat, you can move onto moving, sitting and lying – all of which is in Kelly’s book – and generally more ‘active’ strengthening exercises, such as planking or leg raises.