Core strength and stability

So, as anyone who has talked to me or read my website will know by now, I strongly feel that the risk of almost all back problems can be minimised if you have really good core strength and control.  There are a number of ways of going about gaining this level of fitness, but there are a few things to bear in mind.

You are always going to be better off going to a class, rather than trying to do it at home.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll need to practice at home as a once-a-week session simply isn’t going to get you where you want to be, but having a fully trained, qualified instructor telling you what to do and picking up any flaws in your technique is invaluable.

Second, this is not something you can just achieve, and then leave.  I speak from experience: if you try resting on your laurels thinking “oh yes, I have good core strength” and fail to continually work on your exercises, like any muscle they will simply weaken again in a suprisingly short time.  It’s a good idea, therefore, to build in core exercises to your daily routine so that it comes as naturally as brushing your teeth.  It doesn’t need to take that much longer than brushing your teeth, either, if you do it on a regular basis!

Finally, before embarking on any core strength training, speak with someone like myself (a chiropractor), an osteopath, a physiotherapist, a Pilates instructor or a yoga instructor to make sure there are no current problems that need addressing before you get into it.

All that being said, what is it you should be doing?

Well, I was going to write my own list of exercises, tips and advice…maybe even do some pics to demonstrate the exercises or at least link through to suitable websites that you can look at, yes?

Then, while looking for just such websites to link to, I came across this and decided that was actually a really rather good selection, well written and for the most part easy to follow! So read, digest, enjoy and get that core strength going!

Just a few caveats on this particular set of exercises.  I generally don’t recommend doing the “cobra stretch” that they have listed – it’s fine if your back is pretty healthy, but if you’ve had any problems in the past (which most people I talk to have had!) then it bends everything in all the wrong ways.

Similarly, they have included the “supine twist” and “supine twist on a physioball”.  Now, done very carefully and in complete control, this is OK.  But if it’s done too quickly or without enough support from your core muscles, you can end up putting far too much twist through your lower back.  Doing on the gym ball/physioball is actually better than doing it without, but I would suggest that unless you are very sure of your strength and very careful 100% of the time while you do it, just give this one a miss as well!

Otherwise, have fun!  Remember that core strength is something to continually work on, you are better at least occasionally attending a class, and the more variety you work in to your routine the better.

Mattresses…

We all use them, but how often do you think about whether your mattress is right for you?  Or how much it can affect your life – both in terms of quality of sleep, and the potential for causing pain or other physical problems.

Most people are aware of how important posture is to your overall health.  If you’ve experienced a full day sat at a poorly set-up work station, and felt the aches and pains after you’ve been there, then it can quickly prompt you to change things so that the computer is the right position, your chair suits you or your desk is the right height.

But let’s take the average-Joe office worker.  Let’s say, they work a 9-5 day, Monday to Friday, with maybe an hour off for lunch in the middle of the day.  They have had the Occupational Health team in, so everything is set up in the optimum position.  That’s a total of 35 hours a week, supposedly sat in the right way, doing all the right things as far as their work will allow.  But they are still getting headaches. Or low back pain.  Or a stabbing pain through their chest every time they take a deep breath.

It’s entirely possible any of these problems are to do with their bed.  35 hours a week of being in the correct, well-supported posture is nothing when you consider an average 8-hours-a-night sleeping pattern means you are spending 56 hours a week in your bed, rarely getting up for a tea break, or to go and check the printer, or for lunch.  Just lying there, relatively still, in whatever position you fall asleep in.

Add to that how rarely most people renew their mattress and we start to see just how important the health of your bed can be.

But what sort of mattress should you be going for?  There are articles and studies and “expert” opinions all over the internet on this topic, but my personal opinion is this: whatever is comfortable for you.  Now, I add the caveat of “nothing too soft” to that – you do need a certain level of support from the surface you are sleeping on, so something that just lets you sink in to it is not going to be any good – but should you go for medium-firm? Hard? Memory foam? Pocket sprung? With a topper or without? It’s all down to personal preference, and sleeping position.

A few tips, though.  First, never test a mattress when you’re tired.  If you are about ready to drop, then you could fall asleep at a bus shelter and think it’s comfortable.  You need to be able to get a comfortable, good night’s sleep even when your mind is tending to overdrive, so if you think you could drop off on something even though you’re awake and ready to go, it’s probably going to be a good bet.

Second, make sure you give it a good long test run.  This is where buying over the internet can be harder – you have no idea what you’re getting until it arrives, and then many of us will settle for not-quite-right rather than get into the hassle of returning it, even if there is a money back guarantee in place.  Go to the store, kick your shoes off and settle in for long enough that you can be sure you are getting something which will be a lasting investment for you.

Finally, consider what position you normally sleep in.  If you are a side-sleeper, you are likely to want a slightly softer mattress than someone who sleeps on their back.  If you sleep one way but your partner sleeps another, consider a split-support mattress so that each of you has the level of comfort you need.