“Our spines are a collection of bones, ligaments, discs, joints, and muscles that all live in the trunk,” explains physical therapist Diana Zotos-Florio, PT, CSCS, certified yoga teacher and co-founder of Threes Physiyoga Method (a movement practice that combines yoga with PT principles). “Their main role is to protect our vital spinal cord, which is part of our nervous system. But its other role is to help absorb and disperse the load of our everyday life. And they’re responsible for directing energy or load that moves up into our hips, through our core, and into our arms so we can do full-body movements.”
That’s a pretty big responsibility for a body part! So what exactly makes a spine able to perform this function as energy absorber and movement coordinator?
Anatomy of a healthy spine
A healthy spine has three components. The first is an “S” shape when viewed from the side (with a curve through the lower and upper back). That curved shape is what helps it act as sort of a spring, according to Zotos-Florio. “If your spine is ‘S’ shaped, it will be able to absorb the load from each step, jump, running stride, or whatever you’re doing, compress slightly, and then uncompress,” she explains.
Next up: full range of motion (or mobility). Each vertebra should be able to move. That way, when you do something like twist or bend, the task is evenly distributed across the spine, so no one portion of it is working too hard, which could make you prone to injury.
Finally, your spine should have some room to breathe! “A healthy spine is one that has some space in it,” says Zotos-Florio. “If your spine was a Slinky, and you were opening it up, you'd want that spine to have some level of openness, not completely be compressed. So the more decompressed your spine is—and the more space there is between bones—the easier it is for each bone to move.”
But repeatedly staying in one posture for too long puts all of these factors—shape, mobility, and space—at risk. And unfortunately, sitting for long periods of time can compress our spines and even compromise the movement of some vertebrae. That’s why Zotos-Florio herself pays attention to her spine.
Below are the spinal mobility exercises she practices throughout the day when she is feeling crunchy and tight, or first thing when she wakes up. Overall, Zotos-Florio advises setting aside 10 minutes per day to keep that spine healthy.
7 spinal mobility exercises to promote a healthy spine
This is an exercise Zotos-Florio likes to do throughout the day, even while doing something like washing dishes, as a way to check in with her spine. Stand upright. This means your weight is dispersed evenly across your feet, your spine is neutral (meaning your shoulders, hips, and ankles are all in one line and you have a natural curve in your lower and upper backs), and make sure your chin isn’t jutting forward. “This is sort of like a home base,” Zotos-Florio says of this posture. “You don't have to live here, but it's a great place to practice.”
Next, imagine there is a helium balloon sitting on top of your head. The string goes through your skull down to your neck and spine. Without puffing those ribs forward, allow the helium balloon to lift you up. “Feel how you could get two inches taller,” Zotos-Florio says.
2. Gate pose to create even more space
This exercise further elongates your spine with the help of a side stretch. From a high kneeling position, extend one leg straight out to the side so that your foot is resting flat on the floor, toes facing forward. Now reimagine the helium balloon pulling you upwards (without your ribs flaring forward). Then, lift the arm of your kneeling leg above your head, and bend over to the side of your extended leg. Hold for three to five rounds of breathe, then repeat on the other side.
3. Pelvic tilts to practice flexion and extension
To isolate the vertebra and ensure each one has a full range of motion, you’ll practice going in and out of flexion (contracting) and extension (stretching). Stand in front of a surface such as a bed or desk, place your hands on it, and hinge forward from the hips, keeping a soft bend in your knees. Alternate between tucking your tailbone under and sticking your butt out, without squeezing your glutes. Continue for three to five rounds of breathe.
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4. Flexion and extension of the thoracic spine
You can practice the same principle of contracting and stretching for your upper back. Start kneeling on the floor or your bed and place your palms flat on the surface in front of you, slightly in front of shoulders. Tuck your chin and round your upper back toward the ceiling, then reverse that motion to arch your back and lift your gaze to look between your hands. Continue for three to five rounds of breathe.
5. Roll up and down
Put the lower back and the thoracic spine spine movement together for a whole back opening pose. Stand straight in that home base. Then tuck your chin and start to fold forward like you’re trying to touch your toes, starting with your shoulders, then upper, mid, and lower back all the way down. Pause at the bottom, then tuck your tailbone under and reverse that order to stack your spine back up until you’re standing tall. Let your head be the last thing to lift.
“It's like someone's walking their fingers down your spine,” Zotos-Florio says. “As they touch each bone, you want to round that bone down. So you're really trying to almost round over a beach ball or a bowling ball, and each vertebra gets a chance to round on its way down.”
6. Axial rotation
Find a wall you can stand sideways next to, then get into a runner’s lunge, with your right foot forward and back knee down, so your right hip and outer thigh are touching the wall. Then extend your right arm straight in front of you against the wall. Next extend your left arm straight in front of you, and then open it out and back behind you so your chest rotates to face away from the wall, with your left arm extended backwards. Your upper body will basically be in a T shape. “Don't initiate it with your arm opening, initiate it with the left ribcage rotating back,” advises Zotos-Florio. Hold for three to five breathes, then repeat on the other side.
7. Protect your neck
The neck is the highest part of the spine, so don’t forget it. This exercise stretches it and the shoulders because those muscles are so intertwined. Slowly look left and right, up and down, then roll your shoulders backwards and forwards. Repeat three to five more times.
Like Zotos-Florio suggested, make these spinal mobility moves part of your daily routine, and aim to do them for 10 minutes each day, either when you wake up or as a nice break from work. And if you want to improve on your spinal mobility even more, try Pilates.
You can start with this 15-minute, full-body workout that’ll help you increase your mobility from head to toe:
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