Your spine faces considerable stress during your daily life, so it's important to keep the bones in it strong. There are 24 vertebral bones in your spine, plus the sacrum and coccyx. They are divided into three sections, the cervical neck vertebrae, the midback thoracic vertebrae and the lower lumbar vertebrae. If one or more of your vertebrae is not strong enough to resist the forces of daily life, you run a high risk of a compressive fracture. These fractures commonly occur when you straighten your back after rounding it forward.
No Bones About It
You may not give much thought to your bones, but they are essential to your overall fitness. Bone is made up of two types of tissue -- cortical tissue and trabecular tissue. Cortical bone is smooth and dense and is typically found on the outside of bone. Trabecular bone forms the sponge-like inner structure of bone. Early bone loss occurs in trabecular tissue, and because your spine is primarily made of trabecular tissue, it is especially vulnerable. In fact, spinal compression fractures are the most common type of osteoporotic fracture. Fortunately, you can strengthen your vertebrae with the right kinds of exercise.
Spinal Alignment Is Important
When your spine is aligned correctly, your posture will improve, the vertebrae will be supported and the rest of your body will move more freely. When you stand upright, your vertebrae stack over each other to form a gentle S-curve that supports your body's weight. Muscles attached to the vertebrae move and support your spine so you can balance, rotate and bend. An easy trick to align your spine is to imagine a plumb line hanging down from the ceiling. Stand up and feel that plumb line drop down through the center of the top of your head, your center of gravity -- just below your belly button -- and down to the floor evenly spaced between your feet. This will help you align your head over your shoulders, pelvis and feet.
Bone-Building Exercise For Your Spine
Your body adapts to its environment. If you challenge your body with exercise, your muscles and bones will respond by getting stronger. On the flip side, if you don't challenge your bones and muscles with additional loads, they will get weaker. Bone responds to added loads by laying down more bone mineral. Once it is strong enough to resist such loads, it stops getting stronger. So, to continue to build stronger bones, you must continue to challenge your skeletal system with stronger and different loads. It is important to challenge your bones with the correct type of load. The vertebrae in the lumbar section of your spine are your largest vertebrae. These vertebrae bear most of your body's weight and are positively affected by impact and weight-bearing exercises like stepping or jumping. The thoracic and cervical vertebrae respond better to exercises that strengthen the muscles that attach to your spine, such as a seated row.
Exercises to Avoid
To protect a fragile spine, avoid exercises that round your back when bending forward, or twist your torso without also rotating your pelvis and shoulders. Common exercises that can put undue pressure on your vertebrae include sit-ups, straight-leg kicks, somersaults, toe touches, torso rotation, windmills and opposite toe touches.
- Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals: Osteoporosis
- The Osteoporosis Report: Exercise Prescription: Building Back Strength; National Osteoporosis Foundation
- Aging, Physical Activity, and Health; Roy, J., MD, PhD, DPE
- American College of Rheumatology: Osteoporosis
Cindy Killip is a health and fitness specialist, health coach, author and speaker who has been teaching and writing about exercise and wellness since 1989. She authored "Living the BONES Lifestyle: A Practical Guide to Conquering the Fear of Osteoporosis." Killip holds multiple certifications through the American Council on Exercise and degrees in communications and sociology from Trinity University.