My Story

I’m 66 years old. I was born with a backache.

I have a small defect in the fifth vertebra of my low back. A very small portion of that fifth lumbar vertebra never formed. The condition is called spondylolisthesis.

Up until I was 18 years old, that vertebra didn’t cause me much trouble. After 18, I learned about back pain. My low back hurt like the dickens whenever I was upright or seated. To make matters worse, I had horrible sciatica, the pain running down the outside of my left leg excruciating. Walking or running was a scary task.

Early on, I was able to more or less control the sciatica with chiropractic treatments, but the pain in my lower back never resolved itself. A runner in high school and college, my lower back became so instable by my thirty-first birthday, I had to give up running.

How bad was my back, really? At the height of the Vietnam War, 1970, the army refused to take me. Rejected me is what they did. Gave me a 4-F. Physically unfit for military service. That’s how bad my back was.

4-F, but I wasn’t a total reject. I could still exercise. Riding a bike didn’t aggravate my low back, in fact bike riding was and still is a pain-free experience for me. Exercise—especially aerobic exercise like cycling—is one of several crucial steps in keeping your back healthy and pain free.

Cycling, like any aerobic exercise, isn’t enough, though. Like a hot shower or sauna, cycling only offered temporary relief. Off the bike, my low back still hurt.

During the last 30 years I’ve invested considerable time and effort looking for ways to manage my pain, be as pain free as I possibly can. I’ve gone the whole nine yards: I’ve consulted with all shapes and sizes of health care professionals, tried all kinds of techniques, programs, and medications, good and bad.

The steps I’ve discovered to keep my 4-F back as pain free as possible are pretty straightforward. I use a three-pronged approach that 1) balances stretching with strengthening, 2) focuses on core trunk muscle stabilization, and 3) complements the first two with aerobic exercise. Paying attention to body mechanics—my posture while standing, sitting, sleeping, walking, bending, reaching, and lifting—ensures I don’t mess up what I’ve accomplished exercising.

Your Story

My story’s not your story, and yours isn’t mine. But I bet we do have two things in common: our years and our desire for a healthy back.

In some cases, your story could share more similarities with mine: the source of your back pain could be an abnormality of or an injury to your spine. Spondylolisthesis, my condition, is an example. A ruptured or bulging disc is another. Bone spurs and arthritis are more examples.

Or your story could have nothing to do with bone- and disc-related problems. Your back pain could be the result of one or more of these reasons: poor posture, faulty lifting techniques, obesity, underused muscles, work and life stresses—any one of these can lead to an aching back.

Regardless of the reason for your back pain, consult with your health care provider to insure that the stretching and strengthening exercises in Better Boomer Backs are appropriate for your condition. You may need to avoid certain activities and exercises depending on your diagnosis.

Your Core Reasons for Wanting a Pain-Free Back

I have an ever-changing list of reasons for following my routine. The list starts off with the statement, “I want to have a healthy, strong, pain-free back so that I can . . .” followed by my reasons.

That list is important. It keeps me motivated and is a constant reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Here’s a short story I never want to repeat (it’s related to reason #2 on my motivational list, seen at the end of this section):

In the late summer of 1999, a group of us, husbands and wives, headed up to Mendocino on California’s northern coast for a weekend getaway. We arrived early afternoon and unpacked into our lodging.

Sandy and I were staying in a fancifully refurbished water tower, 30 steep steps leading up to a fabulous room. While Sandy napped in preparation for an evening on the town with our friends, I decided to kayak an hour or two along the coast with my buddies.

At the beach put-in, I opted to help launch my friends into the water. The very first boat I pushed across the beach into the ocean was a disaster. I bent incorrectly—at the waist with my knees straight—before I pushed on the stern of the boat. My back immediately went out. Poor body mechanics and a less-than-stabilized core were the causes.

A long story short, I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t move at all. I had to be carried up to our room where I stayed the weekend, barely able to get out of bed for the necessities. Sandy was not pleased, to say the least. She’s a good sport, but this was a bit much.

When I’m tempted to skip my stretching and exercise routines, remembering that weekend is enough to get me back with the program.

As of this writing, here’s my list:

I want to have a healthy, strong, and pain-free back so that I can

  1. romp with my grandson,

  2. be part of family adventures and not stuck on the sidelines,

  3. walk the dog on the ridge with my wife without hobbling,

  4. do my share of the “heavy lifting” around the house (and score a few “good husband” points),

  5. mountain bike and kayak with my buddies, and

  6. be physically prepared for whatever comes my way, good times and otherwise.

Make a list of goals for yourself. It can be as long or as short as you want. Refer to it often.

Where to Start

I don’t know your individual story, but I can probably identify you as someone who fits into one of three broad categories based on your back pain:

1.You have back pain, but you’re not currently incapacitated by it. Annoyed, maybe, but you’re able to function with your pain.

2.You’re incapacitated by your back pain. Your life is miserable.

3.You have nothing wrong with your back, no pain whatsoever. You’re here because you’re curious. Maybe you’re concerned about nipping any future back pain in the bud before it blossoms. You are, after all, a Boomer, not a spring chick.

If you’re in one of the first two categories, find out the cause of your back pain if you haven’t already. Make an appointment with your health care provider to determine its source. I know the source of mine and can tailor my routines around it, avoiding activities that aggravate my condition, doubling up on exercises that reduce and eliminate the pain.

If you fit into either category 1 or 3, jump to the next section, you’re ready to start the program.

If You’re Not Ready to Start the Program

If you’re in category 2, don’t jump anywhere, you’re not ready. Before you can take control of your pain, let your back settle down.

Your health care provider may prescribe bed rest and pain killers. Your rehabilitation also might include treatments such as massage, heat, and physical therapies. The goal is to relax the muscles causing you pain, to let any inflammation and swelling from strains and sprains subside.

While you’re following your health care provider’s advice, you can speed the process by relaxing. The stress of your back pain may be causing your muscles to tense up. When you’re tense and upset, your muscles contract, adding to the pain already there. Relaxing will help tense muscles unwind.

Here’s a good relaxation technique when you’re recuperating in bed, lying flat on your back:

•Stretch out your legs, your arms at your sides.

•Close your eyes.

•Inhale slowly through your nose, expanding your stomach the first two-thirds of the inhalation, then your chest the last third.

•Exhale slowly through slightly parted lips, drawing in your stomach to force out all the air.

•Repeat as many breaths as needed.

Those are the mechanics of the technique. Now, let’s add some vision.

When you’re inhaling, imagine you’re breathing white light in through your navel, filling your whole body. On the exhalation, imagine the white light flowing through your muscles, carrying away all the pain.

Each breath could focus on relaxing a specific muscle or body part. Take as many breaths as needed to relax as much of your body as you see fit. If the white light is a bit too 1960s for you, imagine something else, anything. A tiny freight train with cars to carry away the pain works just as well as white light.

A nice feature of this relaxation technique is that you can do it sitting down or standing up as well as lying down. The more time spent relaxing, the faster the healing.

Once your pain is manageable, jump to the next section to begin your program.

A Word About Weight

If you carry around too much weight on your body, you could be straining your low back. A big gut, in particular, can overpower the core muscles that keep your spine properly aligned, causing you painful backaches.

You can still do the exercises in Better Boomer Backs if you’re overweight, but you won’t get the full benefit of the program.

I’m not the go-to guy for advice on losing weight. I’ve tried different diet programs, lost weight, but then gained it right back. I try to eat non-processed foods when I can—vegetables fresh from the garden the best—but not often enough. I also have a sweet tooth and try to stay away from baked goods and candies . . . to little avail.

My primary program for weight containment is calorie-shedding, fat-burning aerobics. Mt. biking, kayaking, and walking are my mainstays. Despite my 5-day-a-week aerobic exercise routine, I’m still slightly overweight according to the standard body mass index (BMI).

BMI is a measure of body fat based on the height and weight of adult  men and women. You can find any number of free BMI calculators on the Internet to determine your index. Simply type “BMI calculator” into the search field of your favorite search engine.

According to recent studies, you’re weight’s normal if your BMI is 18.5–24.9. Overweight is 25–29.9. I’m currently 25.1. Any BMI over 30 is considered obese.

If you’re overweight and your back is giving you trouble, supplement the healthy back advice in this program with a weight loss program of your choosing.