An acupuncturist spent a decade studying cultures with low rates of back pain, this is what she learned.
Most American suffer from back or neck pain at some point in their lives, and for many of us the problem will become chronic.
It’s a vexing pest, back pain, and basically promises to suck the joy right out of anything. It’s constant, it makes sleep difficult and exercise tricky. It inspires the use of painkillers and often leads to surgery; it can bring out the sourpuss in the brightest of spirits. How we suffer! But remarkably, there are places in the world where people don’t have back pain. How is that possible?
This is what a California acupuncturist, Esther Gokhale, set out to find after her back problems led to surgery and continuing pain. She trotted the globe looking at cultures with low rates of back pain and studied how they stand, sit and walk. She went to the mountains in Ecuador, small fishing towns in Portugal and faraway villages of West Africa, reports NPR. She found one indigenous tribe in India that had no back pain at all, zero; and the discs in their backs held up just fine as they aged.
Gokhale studied people whose backs would seem to take a beating; people who carried heavy loads on their heads, who stooped for hours collecting things, who sat on the ground doing handwork all day – and they didn’t experience aching backs.
"I have a picture in my book of these two women who spend seven to nine hours everyday, bent over, gathering water chestnuts," Gokhale says. "They're quite old. But the truth is they don't have back pain."
In trying to figure out what they have in common, she determined that the primary similarity is the shape of their spines – a shape that is markedly different from American spines. Looking at spines in profile, ones that don't provide pain are shaped more like a J, most American spines mimic an S.
"That S shape is actually not natural," she says. "It's a J-shaped spine that you want."
Historically, most backs are represented as J-shaped, as are those of kids.
"The J-shaped spine is what you see in Greek statues. It's what you see in young children. It's good design," Gokhale says.
How did we become a culture of S-shaped people? It could be excessive weight or a sedentary lifestyle, however there haven’t been any scientific studies to back up any of this. But one thing that Gokhale was able to prove: changing her S to a J resolved her chronic back pain. And since then, she has written a book and has helped countless people to ease their pain as well. The following five exercises are part of the secret to her success. She recommends doing them while working at your desk, sitting at the table, and walking around.
1. Roll your shoulders
Americans favor a scrunched-forward position with their shoulders, which pushes the arms forward. That's not how people in indigenous cultures carry their arms, Gokhale says. To remedy, slowly push your shoulders up, pull them back and then let them drop, in a rolling motion. Let your arms hang by your side, with your thumbs pointing out. "This is the way all your ancestors parked their shoulders," she says. "This is the natural architecture for our species."
2. Lengthen your spine
Who knew you could add length to your spine? Gokhale says it's easy. WIthout arching your back, take a deep inhalation and grow tall. Keep that height as you breathe out. Breathe in again, grow even taller and maintain that new height as you exhale. "It takes some effort, but it really strengthens your abdominal muscles," Gokhale says.
3. Squeeze your glutes when you walk
We don't seem to walk with much pert attention, but people in indigenous cultures squeeze their gluteus medius muscles every time they take a step, leading to shapely tushes that also help to support their lower backs. This can be your fate too, says Gokhale, if you tighten the muscles of your derrière each time you take a step. "The gluteus medius is the one you're after here. It's the one high up on your bum," Gokhale says. "It's the muscle that keeps you perky, at any age."
4. Resist keeping your chin up
Try it, point your chin up slightly and see what happens to your neck ... it compresses a bit. Instead, add length to your neck by taking a light object, try a folded washcloth or something similar, and balance it on the top of your head, and push your crown against it. "This will lengthen the back of your neck and allow your chin to angle down – not in an exaggerated way, but in a relaxed manner," Gokhale says.
5. Forget what mom said, don't sit up straight!
"That's just arching your back and getting you into all sorts of trouble," Gokhale says. Instead she advises a roll of the shoulders to open up the chest and a deep breath to stretch and lengthen the spine.
And even though she advises not sitting up straight, all of this leads to great posture – Gokhale isn't called the "posture guru" for nothing. And if a stronger rump and a longer neck lead to a pleasant stance while transforming your S to a J, and relieves your back pain as well, then great posture never looked so good.