A healthy spine and back are essential for almost every movement in daily life. In childhood and young adulthood, people tend to not realize the importance of back strength.
Over time it’s quite common to give in to what feels comfortable: slouching, sitting, and remaining sedentary. It’s easier to neglect the everyday habits that keep our health working for us instead of against us.
Why Is Back Pain So Common?
The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) claims that 65-85% of people over the age of 60 experience musculoskeletal and/or back pain. That is a huge percentage of people suffering from pain and feeling a lesser quality of life than they desire. But why is this so common, especially now that modern medicine only keeps getting better?
Even though back pain can be caused by a long list of issues, one of the most overlooked reasons is one’s lifestyle. In a Swedish study of thousands of adult subjects from 20 to 70 years of age, back pain was reported higher in those who had a less active lifestyle.
“An object in motion stays in motion”, as the famous Newton’s First Law says. When someone stops having physical movement as a regular part of their life, the body weakens. If the muscles, tendons, and ligaments aren’t stretched and strengthened often, the tissues become stiff and weak. Eventually, this can cause mobility issues not only in back muscles but throughout the body.
Best Back Exercises to Help Seniors
If you’re aging and you find back pain to be a persistent issue, remember it’s completely common among millions of people today. Does that mean you have to remain this way forever? Absolutely not! Although you might not be able to reverse the damage of bad posture over the decades, there is hope.
Practicing some of these 10 best back strengthening exercises for seniors can support your body, mind, and stability through the best years of your life to come.
Cat Cow Stretch
“Cat-Cow” (also known as Cat Camel) is a gentle exercise that is most popularly known through modern yoga. It helps stretch the abdominal and hip muscles while strengthening the core, lower back, and neck. It’s done in a fluid, repetitive motion that is easily synced with the breath, therefore relaxing to the nervous system.
1. Begin in a comfortable position on all fours (weight is on your knees, shins, and hands).
2. Make sure your back and neck are straight, but not straining. Relax.
3. Taking a steady inhale breath, your neck and head gaze upward, and your hips and tailbone mirror in direction. Arch your back in the shape of a “U”.
4. When you feel the subtle stretch and your breath is full, you’ve completed the “cat” pose. Now move onto “cow.”
5. During your exhale breath, release your head and your bottom down toward the floor. With your hands and knees, gently push into the floor as your spine arches up in the shape of a rainbow.
6. In the “cow” pose you should feel your ab muscles engaged, lower back stretching, and a slight curve in your neck.
7. On your next inhale, repeat the cycle. Continue the rhythm, “cat, cow, cat, cow”.
8. Repeat 8 times for up to 3 sets.
A bridge exercise is very simple and adaptable once you learn it. A bridge stretches your hips and thighs while strengthening your core (abdominal muscles) and glutes (butt muscles). The glute bridge is great for hip flexors, which help you walk, stand, and drive.
1. Start by laying on your back on a comfortably-padded floor, such as a carpet or yoga mat. Bring the soles of your feet to the floor with your knees pointing up to the ceiling. Your arms are on the floor, along the sides of your body, shoulders dropped away from the ears.
2. Engaging your outer hips and butt, push your hips up to raise off the floor slightly. Raise your hips and pelvis as high as you can off the floor. You may feel your core engage, too.
3. Gently lower your hips back down to the floor. Release your muscles and relax a second.
4. Repeat the exercise 10 to 12 times.
Whether sitting against a wall or laying on a mat, arm raises are a good exercise for improving posture. This movement strengthens the shoulders, scapula (shoulder blades), and upper body muscles.
1. Lay on your back in a comfortable position. You may also try arm raises sitting straight up against a wall or bed frame.
2. With your arms relaxed at your sides, steadily lift your right arm until it’s pointing straight up in the air as if you’re raising your hand.
3. (If you have any pain raising your hand all the way, it’s okay. Try doing half the motion, pointing your arm straight out from your chest.)
4. Steadily lower your arm back down to its starting position.
5. Do this same motion with the other arm on your left side, raising and then lowering.
6. Repeat each side 8 times, for up to 3 sets.
Neck and Chest Stretch (Chair)
The neck and chest are two parts of the body that take a toll with poor posture and weakened muscles. The seated neck and chest stretch is an effective way to relieve tension while working the supporting muscles (scapula, neck, and obliques).
1. Start in a comfortable seated chair position with feet flat on the floor.
2. Reach both hands behind your head, elbows pointing out like a triangle. Clasp your fingers together to support the base of your neck.
3. Gently gaze upwards, allowing your head to lift slightly and your chest open.
4. Inhale one breath.
5. On the exhale, move your abdomen to lower your right elbow down slightly toward the floor. Your left elbow will raise and your right side will feel a nice stretch.
6. Inhale as your rise back to the beginning position.
7. Exhale and move the other side: left elbow down slightly toward the floor and right elbow pointing up, feeling the stretch on the right side.
8. Repeat 5 times for up to 3 sets.
Shoulders play a huge role in posture which can affect upper back pain. Including shrugs as regular strengthening exercises for seniors is just as important as focusing on the lower and middle back.*
1. Begin seated or standing straight up, whichever is more comfortable for you.
2. Raise your shoulders toward your ears. You might feel slight tension in your neck.
3. Release and relax your shoulders down to your neutral position, shoulders away from your ears.
4. Repeat several times. For an extra challenge, use light dumbbells during a few of your sets.
5. Make sure to follow this routine with gentle neck stretches to relieve any extra tension after this strengthening work.
When bending over, backs are not supposed to be the only part that does the bending. This is how we strain our backs. The spine is ideally to be kept straight and supported by the hips, legs, and core muscles.
This is why hip hinges are a much-needed exercise for supporting the back during everyday movements. Learning this movement improves your range of motion and can prevent future lower back pain.
1. Start by standing straight with feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Keeping your core engaged and spine straight, bend your knees gently to lower as you point your hips back.
3. If capable, you can reach your arms down to give the lower back a deeper stretch. Watch for balance and your flexibility, though.
4. Keeping the back straight, “hinge” your hips back up, and stand in starting position.
5. Repeat 10 times, making sure to keep your back straight and focusing on the hinging at the hips.
Reverse Leg Lifts (Standing)
Doing reverse leg lifts while standing is great for the glutes and lower back. Most large movements involve the lower back and legs so the two must go together during exercise.
This is a more advanced movement, so it’s okay if you need to work your way up to it. When doing reverse leg lifts, make sure to move your leg mostly by the strength of your abdominal muscles to get the most benefit.
1. Begin by standing straight up, holding onto something sturdy for balance.
2. Engage your core and lift your right foot off the ground slightly, pointing your right leg straight back behind you. Hold for 5 seconds and return your leg underneath you, placing your foot on the floor.
3. Repeat with the left leg, hold for 5 seconds, making sure to remain steady and keep your core stabilized.
4. Do the same movements 5 times on each leg for a series of 3-5 sets.
Another intermediate strengthening move for seniors is a hyperextension called the “bird dog”. Hyperextension is when the lower back and upper back are working together and increasing overall muscle support. The bird dog is excellent for strengthening while improving balance and coordination.
1. Start on all fours: hands and knees on the floor. Line up your hands underneath your shoulders, and knees under your hips for good form.
2. Lift your right leg and point it back behind you, aligned with your back. Notice the weight shift of the rest of your 3 supporting limbs.
3. Once you’re comfortable with this balance, lift your opposite arm (left) and point it straight ahead of you, arm aligned with your head.
4. Hold the balance here for 5 seconds, and release both your arm and leg back down to the floor.
5. Reverse the opposing sides and hold the balance for 5 seconds, then return to all fours again.
6. Repeat 10 times, remembering to maintain stability in your core. A little wobbling is normal. If you lose balance, keep trying until you can hold.
Standing Lumbar Extension
This straightforward extension is another full-back exercise for nearly any level. Once you can do the basic move, you can increase flexibility and bend further. This will help with strengthening the muscles supporting your spine as well as giving more flexibility to your back.
1. Start by standing up with good posture, feet facing forward, and arms at your sides.
2. Place your hands on your hips for support.
3. Using your ab muscles for support, bend your lumbar spine backward, creating a decent stretch throughout the rest of your spine.
4. Hold for 3 seconds then return to the starting position.
5. Repeat 8-12 times.
6. If necessary, follow with hip hinges or forward bends to stretch after these lower back exercises.
The knee-to-chest routine is an introductory core exercise. It also stretches the back muscles and hamstrings. This move is simple and can quickly relieve low back pain. This should be done gently and slowly– it’s more of a relaxing stretch than a strength workout, so enjoy it a little bit each day.
1. Lay face-up on a padded mat on the floor to start, with your legs extended out as if about to sleep. You can put a pillow under the small of your back for extra support if needed.
2. Lift one of your legs slightly, then bring your knee in toward your chest. Hug the leg in closer to your chest, feeling the lengthening of your back muscles and hamstring. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Remember to breathe.
3. Release and return your leg to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg and hold for 5-10 seconds. Return to the floor.
4. You can try to do both legs at a time for a more well-rounded stretch that feels good on the back.
5. Repeat 8 times and rest.
How Often Should Seniors Do Back Exercises?
The key to strengthening the back for seniors is consistency. As with any other workout program or good habit, a little bit every single day is the best way to reap the benefits. Instead of trying to do too much all at once, do less, but more often.
For example, you can try to practice 5 of these exercises at least 3 to 5 days per week. That way, you build up stamina and familiarity both in your body and mind. Overall, including your routine as part of your lifestyle will have the most rewarding, long-lasting effect on your overall health.
Talk to your doctor beforehand if you need help creating an exercise plan that focuses on your back or any other area of the body. A professional can advise you on best practices and how to prevent injury.
They also can guide you based on your specific physical condition and current health status. The suggestions mentioned above are simply options for any older adults who want to take charge of their fitness.
Common Back Ailments In Seniors
- Spinal Fractures: Many people over the age of 70 suffer from some kind of spinal fracture at some point. This can be very painful. Sometimes people with spinal fractures don’t know the source of their pain and it can be hard to diagnose. Luckily, many spinal fractures heal on their own. But prevention is key here, which a strong body can assure.
- Hyperkyphosis: Kyphosis, also known as Hunchback, is when the bones in the spine weaken to the point where they change shape and curve incorrectly. It affects the posture of the upper and mid-back. It can be painful and uncomfortable. Hyperkyphosis is commonly a result of spinal fractures that were left unknown or unaddressed.
- Osteoporosis: Osteo meaning “bone” and -porosis related to “porous”, this condition is a weakening of bone mass. Keeping the muscles and bones healthy with movement can prevent and relieve spinal Osteoporosis symptoms.
- Sarcopenia: As we age our physical structure gradually declines. But sometimes people experience a condition called Sarcopenia. This is a loss of skeletal muscle and tissue, which can be very painful. Adding some strength to the muscles can decrease this condition from worsening.
- Disc Degeneration: Many people over 50 experience disc issues in their spine. Discs act as cushions or “bumpers” that allow back flexibility and protect the vertebrae from injury. If these discs degenerate or slip, they can cause serious problems. Keeping the back healthy and strong allows the discs to stay agile to support your spine.
- Spinal Stenosis: Another painful condition is spinal stenosis. This affects nerves and bony matter within the spinal canal. It can eventually compress the nerves and cause constant tingling, numbing, or throbbing pain. Sometimes surgery is required as treatment.
What To Avoid
Just because an exercise program or routine is known as a safe back exercise does not mean it’s safe for all seniors.
Disclaimer: When seeking back strengthening exercises to help resolve pain or to maintain physical fitness, pay attention to your body. If it’s hurting too much, the exercise is too much for you. Try a modification.
Don’t attempt fitness or medical advice unless it’s approved by your health care provider or physical therapist. Pushing yourself too much can lead to worsening pain or bodily damage.
If any movement is too much to do on your own, ask a caregiver or trainer to help you workout to improve back strength.
Making Your Exercise Routine Work For You
There are many simple exercises that seniors can use to strengthen the back. You might have to try a few different ones to see what works best for you in the shape you’re in.
Even though it might seem discouraging to start exercising when aging, there are great benefits that come with healthy movement. The stronger your back, the longer you’ll have the physical support you need to enjoy life.