When you travel, although you are sitting for a great deal of time, you are also moving; you are getting in and out of your seat, into the taxi, on the plane, lifting bags etc. Some movements are easy on your back, others, if done the wrong way, can be a killer. Below I'll discuss a few basic principles of movement to keep a healthy back, that can be used during all parts of your life, not just traveling.
First, lets talk about a type of movement that we all know can be bad for your back - lifting stuff. We have all heard "lift with your legs" or "keep your back straight when you lift things" but what does this really mean? Does it mean you need to keep your back perpendicular to the ground like a tree when lifting something off the floor? No. It simply means do not hunch your spine when lifting. I will use the term straight spine to mean keeping your spine in a non-hunched position, in a straight line from the tip of your head to your tail bone. In the image below this is how you should lift stuff (you can pretend those dumbbells are suitcases…but, unlike below, you should probably where clothes while traveling…although airport security might appreciate the naked gesture because you make their job a little easier). His spine is in a straight and natural position - it is not perpendicular to the floor which can feel awkward, it is about 45 degrees to the floor when he is lifting stuff from the floor but in a straight line from his head to tailbone. This is the strongest position for your spine - when lifting stuff do not slump, hunch, or bend your spine - it is unnecessary and you can hurt yourself.
GOOD lifting and carrying positions:
(thanks to maxworkouts.com)
Straight back, perpendicular to the floor Straight back, about a 45 degree angle to the floor before
rising to a perpendicular position.
Straight back, perpendicular to the floor
Straight back, about a 45 degree angle to the floor before rising to a perpendicular position.
BAD lifting position:
Curved spine and under weight - Ouch!
(thanks to danfingerman.com)
If you still are not sure how to lift, rest assured, you already know how to do this because you learned it as a toddler. It is basically your jumping position - if you bend your legs a bit and prepare to jump straight up in the air, as high as you can, you will find you are in the above position; your back is straight (not perpendicular), your knees are bent, and your weight is centered over the center of your feet. You are in the strongest position for your body to jump (or lift stuff) as high as possible. Try it out and see - it is a very easy way to remember how to lift properly.
In general, with all movements, keeping a spine straight (again, straight does not necessarily mean perpendicular to the ground) and untwisted is the strongest position your back can be in. When getting up out of a chair, out of bed, carrying something, walking, or even playing sports, a straight spine will add strength, ease of movement, and help prevent injury. Even if you have a bad back you can still play sports if your movements are practiced enough to keep a straight spine. For example, in basketball you need move left and right, or pivot on defense - do this by moving your feet and you do not need to twist your spine. Practice keeping a straight spine in all of your movements and it will become second nature so you will no longer have to think about it.
Does this mean you should never bend or twist your spine? No. Regular and controlled flexing or twisting of the spine for short periods of time can help keep your spine nice and supple and is good for you when done properly (for example see the child pose stretch I mention in Part 2 of this blog series). However, I recommend working personally with a well educated trainer for any exercises involving these actions. If you are ever unsure if a movement is bad for your spine, the safe route is to keep that spine straight.
Here I am lifting almost 600 pounds over my head. You better believe I am not bending my spine! My straight spine starts at about 45 degrees to get the weight off the ground and then I keep it straight as I rise to perpendicular to the ground - if I were to bend my spine here my comparatively weaker back muscles and discs would collapse!
(OK, this is not really me - but he does have good lifting technique, however I have a Strongback Chair.)