We need a strong back as we age — to maintain good posture, stay more functional, be able to lift more (be it furniture, groceries, firewood, babies) and be pain free and more playful with kids or grandkids. In short, to stay active life-long and have more fun.
Now we can add spinal bone strengthening to our list of reasons for building stronger back muscles. In new research from Korea, women aged 60 to 75 underwent both magnetic resonance imaging of the paraspinal muscles (the muscles that run up the back along either side the spine) and bone mineral density testing. Those women with well-developed lower back spinal muscles enjoyed higher bone density as compared to those with less back muscle mass.
The average woman without a regular exercise program to strengthen the lower back muscles loses 50% of her back muscle strength between the ages of 50 and 80.
5 favorite exercises for strengthening the back muscles and spine
1. Build your back extensor muscles. My number one favorite exercise for strengthening the back was developed by the Mayo Clinic to help women who had previous spinal fractures. To perform, lay belly down on a flat surface (floor or even your bed to start) and raise your chest for a count of 10 before lowering your chest to your starting position. Practice this back extensor chest lift daily to help reduce new spinal fracture. Start with one rep a day and work up to 20 reps a day for five days a week. For extra strength, you can add a weighted backpack as illustrated below or wear a weighted vest.
2. Practice good posture, which is an exercise in itself. When your back, neck and head are in alignment, it’s a natural workout for the muscles of your spine. Stand tall, shoulders back but relaxed — imagine that you are showing off a lovely necklace. Another way to practice good posture is to stand against a wall and adjust your body until your buttocks, shoulders and head all touch the wall. Hold this position for a few minutes and notice the way your lower back muscles. They are getting a workout! This simple exercise can be done every day. Try to recreate this posture position as you go about your daily routine.
3. Train with weights. If you remember the Australian weight lifting study I talked about last year you will recall the amazing benefits that many are finding with weight training for bone health, especially for strengthening the spine. Working with a trainer who adjusts and monitors your progress is very helpful for anyone wanting to use weight. For specific exercise, check out what my client Cindi did — photos and exercise schedule included — to gain an amazing 5.6% of bone density in her spine!
4. Mindful exercises like yoga help to strengthen the spine. Several recent scientific studies document the positive effects of yoga on bone health in women of all ages. Results showed increased bone density in the spine and hips as measured by DEXA scans, as well as reduced markers of bone turnover. You want to seek out classes (online or in person) that are safe for women with bone health issues. Ask your instructor or look for classes specifically for women with osteoporosis. Poses that can be beneficial for bone health include the Vrksasana (tree pose), Utthita Trikonasana (extended triangle pose) and Virabhadrasana II (warrior pose II). This Yoga Journal article has helpful step-by-step pictures and directions of these poses.
5. Water aerobics. In a recent study, participants took part in a 20-minute aquatic exercise program for a period of six months. The exercise program featured jumping and hopping in chest-high water, along with arm movements for an overall high-intensity workout. At the end of the study, participants experienced increased bone density throughout the body, and specifically in the spine and femur, compared to a control group. As an added bonus, the exercise group also had greater leg strength and agility! We are just beginning to understand the benefits of swimming and other aquatic exercise for bone building and I encourage to learn more.
Dae-Young Lee et al., Relationship between bone mineral density and spinal muscle area in magnetic resonance imaging. J Bone Metab. 2015 Nov. 22(4):197-204.
Sinaki, M et al., Stronger Back Muscles Reduce the Incidence of Vertebral Fractures: A Prospective 10 Year Follow-up of Postmenopausal Women. Bone, Vol. 30, No 6, June 2002:836-841.