Sure, a solid core looks great in a swimsuit, and standing tall visually knocks a few pounds off your weight. But having a strong midsection can also increase the health of your spine — and help protect against painful conditions like the "dowager's hump," the forward-leaning curvature in the upper back that you sometimes see in senior citizens.
As we age, our bones go through a natural degenerative process that can result in conditions like osteoarthritis (a wearing down of cartilage between bones) and osteoporosis (a decrease in bone mass). Both of these conditions can affect the spine, causing pain and malformation.
What's worse: Excess body weight can speed up this process. It puts pressure on the discs in your back, which can increase the speed of degeneration and lead to other problems, says Anand Gandhi, M.D., of the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa. “Extra weight puts more pressure on the facet joints and may increase bone spur formation," says Gandhi. "These bone spurs then pinch the spinal nerves, leading to spinal stenosis."
This is where yoga comes in. “Yoga can correct your posture and increase the stability of the spine,” Gandhi says. “By strengthening your abs, back extensor muscles and obliques [side abdominals], you’re taking some of the pressure off of the discs and joints, which can help overall spine health.”
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Gandhi promises that it’s never too early to start strengthening your back. The below moves are appropriate for almost any age and they can be done practically anywhere. “These are easy moves to do. They require very little equipment and yield lots of benefits.”
Get started with the poses below, but let common sense guide you. “If you’re doing something to your back that’s causing you pain, it’s your body’s way of telling you to modify that behavior,” Gandhi says. ""The term ‘no pain, no gain’ is not applicable here."
Upward leg stretch
(Illustrated in the first two photos above from left) This move involves raising your legs to 90 degrees and holding for a count of 10. Doing so strengthens your abdominal while stretching your lower back muscles.
Seated twisting pose
(Photo above, third from left.) While seated on floor, cross your right leg under your left with right foot pointing toward left hip. Bend left leg over and above your right leg, with left foot flat on floor outside your right knee. With a straight back, twist your upper body toward your left knee. Come back to sitting position, then reverse, placing the left leg underneath the right. This pose stretches and strengthens your obliques, as well as the muscles in your neck.
Side angle pose
(Photo above, far right.) Lunge forward on your right leg, twisting your upper body to the right and reaching down with left arm so that your hand rests on the floor outside the right foot. Hold, then return to standing. Reverse, putting the left foot forward. This pose targets the muscles along either side of your spine.
(Illustrated in the above two photos at left) This move involves gently letting the lower half of your body fall to one side, while the upper half falls to the other. The higher you bring your knees, the more intense the stretch. This move stretches and strengthens your obliques and stretches your neck muscles.
(Photos above, third from left and far right.) While on your stomach on the floor, keep your torso elevated from chest up by placing forearms flat on mat, arms facing front. Gently extend arms as far as comfortable to raise your torso and stretch your back. This move targets your abs, shoulders and lower back, and intensifies the more you straighten your arms.
Only try this advanced pose (photo above left) if you've done it before with an instructor. As you support your straightened lower half with your arms, you stretch the neck and strengthen the trapezius (upper back and shoulder) muscles.
(Photo above, second from left.) Lay on your stomach and bend your knees up and toward your backside. If you're able, reach behind with your arms to grab your ankles, gently stretching your legs up off the ground. This motion strengthens and stretches the abs.
(Photo above, third from left.) Lay on your back, feet flat on the floor, and tense your glutes to slowly lift your hips up off the ground. In addition to toning the backside and thighs, the bridge is a good way to strengthen trapezius muscles.
In this advanced pose (photo above, far right), begin by kneeling with your knees hip distance apart, thighs perpendicular to ground. With your hands on your lower back, drop your head back and begin to lean your body back, deepening the stretch as far as is comfortable, until your hands are gripping your ankles. The camel not only stretched the neck and trapezius muscles, but also the abs.
Before starting any new exercise routine, make sure to check in with your doctor.