In the first blog we talked about how to keep your back comfortable while traveling by using back support cushions and getting up and moving around (e.g. on airplanes). In this blog we will discuss another important thing to do to keep your back comfortable while traveling - stretching.
Keeping your muscles loose and limber is an important aspect to having and maintaining a good back. And I am talking about more than just stretching your back - it is equally important to keep all of the muscles and tendons that are connected to your back loose too, otherwise your back can be pulled and twisted in uncomfortable ways even when you are just standing. For example, if your calves are too tight they will pull on your hamstrings which, in turn will pull on your hips, forcing them into an unnatural or off-kilter position, which pulls your lower back in a less than optimum position and can result in back pain.
My 3 favorite stretches (below), which you can easily do anywhere you have some floor space (e.g. hotel room, gym, park, etc.), will keep most of the big muscles that are important for a healthy lower back loose and limber. When stretching remember to warm up first (move around and get those muscles warm), hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds, don't bounce, focus on a pain-free stretch, and to relax and breathe freely.
(To learn more on the basics of stretching visit this site.
Child Pose - this is a very simple and relaxing stretch that comfortably loosens up your lower back - this is especially good after sitting for long periods of time. Get on your knees, spread them apart about shoulder width, and lean forward stretching your arms out along the floor. Sink down into the floor, breath easy, and hold it for 60 seconds or so. Repeat multiple times per day if you like (it feels nice).
STRETCH 2 - Hamstrings and calves
This is my favorite all-round stretch for keeping a healthy back. Your back on the ground, under no stress, while you get a fantastic hamstring and calf stretch. To do this stretch lie on your back, keep your lower back flat against the ground, raise one knee up to relax, and use a chord, rope, or rolled towel (or whatever will do the job) to raise your opposite leg up. Locate the chord toward the ball of your feet and keep your knee straight. The closer the chord is to the ball of your foot (towards your toes, not the heel) the better calf stretch you will get. Eventually, you should at least be able to hold your leg straight and perpendicular to the floor.
STRETCH 2 ALTERNATIVE - Hamstrings and calve
If you can't find floor space for stretch 2 (above) you will have to settle for standing up and doing the hamstring stretches. I usually do these in the middle of a long plane flight in the aisle near the bathroom - sure some people look at me funny but who cares? (If you like even more attention consider doing these while making a goofy face - people love it!). Hold one leg straight in front of you and lean over it while bending the other leg slightly at the knee. While doing these keep your back straight; straight does not mean vertical - in the pose below you can see her back is at an angle of about 45 degrees but is very "straight" from her tail bone through the top of her head. Also notice her toes are raised to stretch her calf muscle and help stretch the hamstring.
(Note, the first "Stretch 2" is preferred over this "Alternative Stretch 2" because in the first Stretch 2 you have no stress on your back when you are lying down and it is easier to relax your leg muscles.)
STRETCH 3 - Quad stretch.
Because you have just stretched the back of your legs now you need to stretch the front of your legs to keep your body, especially your back, in a comfortable balance. In general, you don't want one side of your body (legs, arms, shoulders, whatever) more tight than the other side of your body or you may have posture problems with pain as a result. Looser and relaxed in all parts is much better than tight.
To do the below stretch simply stand on one foot, using a wall or chair to balance yourself if you need to, and bring your other foot up to your hand and hold it there to stretch your quads. It is better to grab the top of your foot than your ankle because you get a better stretch on the shin muscles (tibealis anteriors) that are opposite the calves you just stretched.
Quite possibly the most important thing you can do to maintain a healthy, comfortable, and strong back is to have great core strength. How to do it on the go? Be sure to read our upcoming STRONGBLOG - Comfortable back while traveling part 3 -Core Strength.