I've had nagging pain before: a toothache, a side stitch, ridiculously sore quads that felt like boulders. But I didn't know the true meaning of "nagging pain" until I hurt my back earlier this year.
As one of the 31 million Americans who experience back pain at any given time, according to the American Chiropractic Association, I'm lucky that my discomfort isn't constant. Only felt when I arch my back (think Upward Facing Dog in yoga), the pain came on suddenly after attempting a heavy-squat snatch during the CrossFit Open earlier this year. Nearly five months, an X-ray, and an MRI later, I've completely adjusted my day-to-day life to avoid angering what turned out to be arthritis in my lumbar spine.
Being on the injured list is the absolute worst. Especially as a certified personal trainer, run coach, and indoor cycling instructor, movement is part of my everyday agenda. Some days it's hard to have patience, not being able to do everything as I did pre-snatch. What I've learned along this road to recovery is that there are small, simple things you can do not only to alleviate back pain, but stave it off altogether.
1. Backpacks Are Your BFFL
You loved them when you were in kindergarten, and it's time to love 'em again now, no matter your age. It was about a month into learning how to live with back pain that I realized how important it was for me to ditch my standard tote bag. On any typical day, I'm leaving the house before 7 a.m. for a workout and sometimes not coming back until 9 p.m. after a day of workouts, events, teaching, and hitting up the office somewhere in between. That means that my go-to bag was large, filled to the brim, and often only weighing me down on one side. So I swapped my tote for a Lululemon Adventurer Backpack.
Aside from the fact that I'm obsessed with its copious amounts of pockets, I can say without a doubt that it makes going from point A to point B easier. My load feels lighter. Within two days of rocking the pack, I felt like I was standing up straighter. And unlike before, I wasn't doing a scan come day's end, wishing I could hit up the massage parlor.
2. Stand Up For What's Right
Or at least sit less. Here's the thing: while I don't have a 9-to-5 desk job, so to speak, I do spend a great amount of my day on my iPad answering emails and getting work done. Mixing up my routine, and going from sitting to standing every 30 minutes to an hour, helps me do a bit of a posture check a few times a day. It also doesn't hurt that standing up more often during the day can help decrease risk of disease despite activity levels, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
3. Find a Smarter Workout
Hands down, my exercise habits were the hardest things for me to switch up. For the last four years, I've spent the Summer marathon training, something that I reluctantly had to abstain from for 2017. Instead of logging 13- to 18-milers on Sunday mornings, I've shifted my routine to incorporate more exercises that help support my back by strengthening my core, glutes, and hips. When you strengthen the muscles surrounding your spine, you give it a better base of stability. This means that my routine today looks totally different than it did six months ago; think barre, yoga, HIIT classes, and — of course — spin.
Doing these classes without changing my focus wouldn't be possible, either. Now, I have to remember to tuck in my tailbone to protect my lower back during a slew of moves. I have to think about really engaging my abs so I'm not overcompensating with the wrong muscle groups. And, most importantly, I have to make time to do extra sets of strengthening exercises in the comfort of my own home so I can get (and stay) stronger.
Within a month of adding in these extra exercises, the pressure doesn't seem as great come morning when I wake up. That relief alone makes taking the 15 minutes out of my day, no matter how much I don't want to do it, totally worth it.
4. Ditch the Laptop
As a writer and editor, my MacBook has essentially been my right arm for the past eight years of my life. But when you have back pain, you quickly realize just how detrimental it is to tote around your laptop day in, day out. Of course, I might not feel this way if my MacBook hadn't been large and in charge at almost eight years old . . . but I digress.
It took me a few months to finally pull the trigger on a MacBook alternative. Enter the iPad Pro, aka my back's second BFF, next to the backpack.
With my iPad, which I use with a portable keyboard and Apple Pencil, I can do almost everything I can do on my MacBook (and more). My bag feels a bazillion times lighter, and on the days when I'm trying to get a little fancy, it even fits in my purse.
5. Get Firm With Your Sleep
As much as I loved my mattress pre-back-pain saga, my doctor suggested that I sleep on something on the firm side to provide me with a greater base of support. So, I did some research. Turns out the mattress I had was just fine, but the pillow topper I was using had to go. It's not exactly as plush as a Westin Heavenly Bed, but I feel less like "OMG, I WANT TO SCREAM!" when I roll over first thing in the morning. And for that, "grateful" doesn't even begin to describe how I feel.