Back Strengthening Exercises for Seniors
Improve your back health with these tips from back pain expert Dr. Stuart McGill.
Eliminating back pain in old age
Back pain can be a common issue for seniors. If you suffer from this problem, likely you've been searching for answers as to what are the causes of back pain and what treatment for back pain can give you relief.
We reached out to one of the world's leading experts on the subject in an effort to get the scoop on exercises to strengthen the lower back for seniors. Dr. Stuart McGill is a professor emeritus with the University of Waterloo, where he taught for 30 years. His research investigated back pain and rehabilitation as he sought to “master the craft of assessing a person’s back pain.”
At the bottom of this article, you'll find the video in which Dr. McGill discusses low back pain and exercises for lower back pain for seniors that can give you relief.
Why back pain changes as we age
Many factors contribute to the development of low back pain, but the most common is simply an aging spine.
People of different ages will have different types of back pain. In younger individuals, problems tend to be related to the spinal discs. These issues are caused by too much spinal movement with too much load (for example, when doing physical labour for long periods).
As we age, our spinal discs stiffen. This stiffening causes the spinal canal to shrink slightly, obstructing the movement of the spinal cord. This is why more movement causes spinal pain in older individuals while it causes relief in younger people; when we are younger, the spinal cord moves freely, so the movement of the spine is not an issue.
In a person's younger years, the old maxim "moderation in everything" would have conveyed the best advice, even with respect to exercise. Moderate exercise is recommended to prevent back pain later on in life. Too much or too little physical activity in earlier times could both cause issues for some seniors.
“Typically, those who have developed an awful lot of athleticism, a lot of weight training, a lot of heavy motion, they tend not to keep that quite as long as the person who’s more moderate in their exposure to loads and motions,” Dr. McGill says.
Relief for low back pain
Often, some seniors with back problems cannot find a lasting solution because they are receiving poor assessments for their pain from medical practitioners. Dr. McGill's advice to practitioners who examine patients would be: “If you can’t find the cause of their pain, you missed it. Go back and reassess.”
Primary care physicians are sometimes guilty of giving patients a diagnosis of “non-specific low back pain” which can often be highly unhelpful, says Dr. McGill. He explains that to figure out how to avoid the cause of the pain and remedy it, he must be able to understand the pain precisely. Pain triggers — the factors that cause pain — are critical here.
In a typical assessment to detect someone’s pain triggers, the patient might be asked to move into different positions so the specially trained practitioner can investigate which movements and positions cause pain, increase it, or relieve it.
The reasons for pain triggers can also vary. A mechanical situation in the body might cause some, and others might be a force of habit.
The treatment process at BackFitPro (a back pain relief outfit run by Dr. McGill) begins with an investigation into what’s going on in the patient’s life to cause their back problems. This is a crucial part of the process and even involves careful strategies like room layout to make the patient feel comfortable discussing their day-to-day activities.
After discovering the cause of the pain, the next step is to stop the cause and find an alternative to the behaviour that had been causing the pain. It’s essential to pay attention to what we do throughout the day to preserve our back health and remove factors from our lives that cause pain to get to a point where treatments will be effective, Dr. McGill says.
The last step is to create a strategic program to ‘tune [the patient’s] body’ so they can once again move freely and participate in the activities they enjoy with as little pain as possible.
Exercises for Lower Back Pain for Seniors
Although the things that relieve back pain are unique to each individual, there is a general outline anybody can follow to start living pain-free. First, find a position or movement that takes your pain away. This position could be as simple as sitting up straighter or doing a stretch like the pelvic tilt.
Now, start walking. Walking is extremely important for back pain relief because it strengthens and trains the core muscles that support your spine. It can even bring relief to older individuals for whom walking usually triggers pain!
Here’s how: walking in short, pain-free intervals, with small breaks in between for ‘decompression’ exercises, can allow you to relieve tension in your back before you start to feel pain, Dr. McGill explains.
For example, if you start to feel pain in your back after walking for ten minutes, walk in seven-minute intervals with exercises specific to you in between those intervals.
If you repeat this three times, you will have successfully walked pain-free for 21 minutes!
If you decide to do this, it is essential to find an exercise that relieves your specific pain because what works for one person may not work for another.
Dr. McGill’s Biblical Training Week
Dr. McGill has developed a ‘Biblical Training Week’ routine that helps him strengthen his back and remain pain-free. This routine may help you as you continue your back pain relief journey.
Two days a week are dedicated to strength training, ranging from physical labour like chopping wood to typical strength training activities like lifting weights.
Two more days are for mobility work, and the last two are for cardio exercise. These days dedicated to different types of exercise are scattered throughout the week, so the same kind of exercise is never repeated back-to-back.
The last day is left for rest. This is why the routine is called the ‘Biblical Training Week’ (as it alludes to the Creation story in the Bible which God says rested on the seventh day after creating the world). A rest day is essential so your body can heal after the accumulated stress from physical activity throughout the week and become stronger, says Dr. McGill.
How can you continue your journey to relieve back pain?
Dr. McGill recommends visiting his website, backfitpro.com. This site is an excellent resource for anybody wanting to relieve their back pain. It includes links to YouTube videos, interviews, and podcasts featuring Dr. McGill. You can also read articles, access textbooks, and purchase training courses that you can work through.
Dr. McGill’s book, Back Mechanic, guides the average person through a self-assessment of pain triggers and details how to avoid them. It also contains exercises to help you relieve pain. It is available on the BackFitPro website and amazon.ca.
Dr. Stuart McGill is a professor emeritus with the University of Waterloo, where he taught for 30 years. Over 245 scientific papers and textbooks have been published from his research investigating the mechanisms of back pain and rehabilitation. Dr. McGill is now Chief Scientific Officer of BackFitPro Inc. and tests every product associated with the website in his laboratory.
For more information, go to BackFitPro