It’s so easy to go through life in just one of three positions: sitting, standing, or lying down. You might sit at a desk or on the couch, stand as you walk or work, and then jump into bed. Rinse and repeat. While super common, this routine doesn’t account for all the ways your spine needs to move in order to remain healthy, which is why it’s a good idea to work on your spinal mobility on a regular basis.
What is that, exactly? “Spinal mobility refers to the ability of joints to move freely,” says Dr. Camilla Moore, DC, a chiropractor and founder of The Wellness Cabinet. She compares it to flexibility, which is the ability of the muscles to move. There are six main directional movements the spine can go in, Moore says: flexion, or bending forward; extension, or bending backwards; left and right lateral flexion, or bending to the side; and left and right rotation, or turning to each side. In other words, your spine should be bending and twisting in multiple planes outside of your usual sitting, standing, or lying down.
To work on your spinal mobility, you’d purposefully do stretches and exercises that move your spine through all these different planes. While it might be tough at first, once you start bending and twisting you’ll likely notice that you feel better overall. “Studies have even shown that spinal mobility can be a predictor of quality of life,” Moore tells Bustle. “Restoring normal motion, or optimizing your mobility if you have chronic restriction, can help relieve pain, help you feel more mobile, and make movement easier.” Sounds pretty good, right?
Here, experts break down all the reasons why you might want to work on your spinal mobility, plus how to do it.
Why Spinal Mobility Is So Important
1. It Counteracts A Sedentary Lifestyle
Working on your spinal mobility is extra important if you tend to sit a lot throughout the day, Moore says. Not only will certain stretches relieve all the associated aches and pains that come with a sedentary lifestyle, but it also feels really good to move around in different ways and give your back a break.
2. It Decreases Pain
Speaking of pain, Moore points to studies that show a correlation between improving spinal mobility and decreasing pain in general. “This is likely due to the fact that increasing mobility helps to reduce inflammation and tension in the joints and muscles,” she says. Think about it: If your back gets to move and groove in a variety of directions, it’ll be way less likely to feel stiff or sore.
3. It Prevents Overcompensation
Ever notice a chain reaction happening in your body? It’s a thing: If one part isn’t functioning properly, for example, then other areas start to cramp up, and soon your whole body aches.
The reason? According to Haniel Hernandez, DPT, a physical therapist at Redefine Healthcare, the human body tries to adapt to limitations by putting more “load” on neighboring body parts. So if your back is tight, it might impact your hips, and so on.
“Once spinal mobility issues arise, it’s typically followed by pain in the involved region and its neighboring regions as well,” he explains. This is called overcompensation, which causes muscle imbalances and can lead to more pain and injury down the road.
4. It Makes It Easier To Move
According to Moore, your joints respond to consistent demand over time. So if you work on improving your spinal mobility, she says it essentially sends a message to your joints that you want them to remain mobile. Movement is like WD-40 for your joints, basically.
In turn, staying active can make everyday life easier, Hernandez adds, whether you’re walking, reaching, bending, or stooping. “Spinal mobility is crucial for function,” he says. “Everything we do from brushing our teeth to reading a book has some level of spinal mobility involved.”
5. It Improves Posture
Feel like your shoulders are constantly rounding forward? If so, good spinal mobility will help push them back into proper alignment, Moore says. This also relates to a condition called forward head posture where your chin starts to jut forward, usually because you sit hunched over a screen. Spinal mobility helps correct that, too.
6. It’ll Make You More Flexible
“When your spine is more mobile, the surrounding muscles are also more flexible,” says Moore. “This gives a greater range of motion and can help improve your performance in activities, such as sports or yoga.”
7. It Improves Your Balance
Because your spine plays a role in your overall stability, doing regular mobility exercises will also help you feel more balanced, and may even prevent you from falling, Moore says. Since this can be an issue as you get older, do your future self a favor and start working on your back.
How To Improve Your Spinal Mobility
Now that you know why spinal mobility is so important, read on below for expert tips to improve it through a series of juicy stretches and exercises.
1. Thoracic Extensions On A Foam Roller
This exercise will help stretch and lengthen the muscles in your back, which can help to reduce pain and improve your range of motion, Moore says. To get started, simply place a foam roller under your lower back and roll on it slowly until it reaches your upper back.
“As you roll, be sure to pause and hold on any areas that feel tight or uncomfortable,” Moore adds. “Thoracic extension exercises should be performed slowly and with control.” And if you feel any pain, take that as your sign to stop immediately.
2. Lumbar Press-Ups
Press-ups are another good move to add to your routine, Hernandez says. To do them, lie stomach-down on a mat and use your hands to slowly lift your upper body. Once your back is arched, hold it for 15 seconds. If that’s too intense, lower down to your elbows. Hernandez recommends repeating this stretch up to four times a day.
3. Chin Tucks
Moore says it helps to add quick spine mobility “drills” like chin tucks into your day, especially if you work at a desk or find that your chin often juts forward. “To do this drill, first retract the chin back to give yourself a double chin. Then, move the neck forward again,” she says. “Keep doing this motion to increase the forward and backward mobility of the neck.” It’s a great way to improve your posture and overall spinal health.
4. Glute Bridges
According to Nina Moore, a founding trainer of at-home gym FORME, glute bridges are another simple move that has a lot of impact. “By working the posterior chain, glute bridges activate not only the glutes but also the hamstrings, core, and lower back, all of which are important to maintaining support for the spine,” Moore tells Bustle. “Using these muscles properly can relieve spinal extension stress and prevent injury.”
Start by lying flat on your back, with knees bent over your heels and feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart. Press your lower back into the floor, squeeze your glutes, and then lift your hips to the ceiling. Keep your knees over your toes. Hold at the top for a few seconds, then slowly return to the starting position.
5. Hip Rotations
According to Moore, hip mobility and stability are also important when maintaining a healthy spine (and preventing back pain). “This movement addresses internal and external rotation of the hips, which is essential for hip movement and stabilization,” she says.
To loosen up your hips, start by lying flat on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor shoulder-width apart. Stretch your arms out to the sides to form the letter “T,” and let both your knees fall to one side. Pause here for one breath, then pull your knees back to the middle. Let them fall to the other side, all the while making sure your shoulders press into the floor.
Keep this staple yoga pose in your mobility routine, too. “This movement increases blood flow to the spine and releases tension of the neck and upper back,” Moore says. “When done regularly, it helps correct spinal alignment and prevents back pain.”
Start on your hands and knees with your wrists aligned under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Keep your neck long with toes curled under. To do the cow, inhale and draw abs in, round your stomach to the floor, and look up. Move into cat by exhaling, pressing into the floor, and pulling your pelvis under. Tuck your chin to your chest and look towards your core. Round your back naturally and feel a stretch.
7. Side-Lying Trunk Rotations
Rotational movements will help free up your spine. To try a side-lying trunk rotation, Hernandez says to lie on your side with your arms outstretched in front of you. Bend your knees and keep them stationary against the floor as you slowly twist your upper body to the other side. Your back will stretch as you let your arms and head rotate too, sort of like your arms are the opening pages of a book.
Add moves like these to your routine, and your back — and eventually your whole body — should feel start to feel a lot more comfortable.
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