Fit facts: A strong back and steady balance

Back pain is one of the most common complaints in the U.S.

Watch your back

Whether hunched over handlebars, hoisting kids, running marathons or enduring marathon sessions in front of the computer, many of us overload our backs on a daily basis. With back pain one of the most common complaints in the United States, consider these tips from the American Council on Exercise:

  • Strengthen the abs and back muscles. A stronger front means less weight on the back.
  • Strengthen the leg muscles. Strong legs can take a lot of burden off the back.
  • Stay flexible. Tight core muscles and hamstrings make back pain worse.
  • Invest in a comfortable mattress. Eight hours a night on old coils doesn't do a back good.
  • Reduce stress. Your back holds a lot of tension, so give it a break.
  • Warm up. Working out with cold, tight back muscles increases injury risk.
  • Support your lower back when sitting. If your chair doesn't have built-in support, use a rolled-up towel or small pillow.

Practice these tips along with maintaining good posture and a healthy weight. And remember, when lifting things, keep your spine straight and lift from your legs.

In the balance

Good balance not only keeps you steady on your feet, it helps make your movements more powerful and dynamic.

To test where you stand on the balance scale, the American Running Association suggests the following: For 30 seconds, stand with one foot in front of the other touching heal to toe with your eyes closed.

If you can stay steady the whole time, good for you. But if you find yourself wobbling from the get go, consider incorporating a few minutes of balance training into your workouts. You'll improve your sports performance and overall fitness, reduce the risk of ankle strains, and slow the loss of stability that occurs with age. Common balance exercises include standing on one leg, walking across a beam, or training with wobble and rocker boards, or a Bosu ball.

Did you know? You can lose as much as 75 percent of your balance ability between ages 25 and 75.

Try this: Triangle Pose
Having a strong core means better performance in a range of sports. Add flexibility to the mix and you've got a winning combination. The Triangle Pose will help stretch and tone your torso, and strengthen your legs, lower back, feet and ankles.

Here's how it's done: Stand with your feet about three feet apart. Turn your right foot out and your left foot slightly inward, but keep your hips facing forward. Stretch your arms to the side and bend to the right. Rest your right arm on your shin by gently grabbing it, extend your left arm upward, and look up. Hold the pose for a few breaths. Return to the center and repeat on the left.

Fit tip: Take it slow

If you're flying through 100 crunches or countless push-ups at the gym, you're probably using momentum rather than strength to move through the exercise. Remember, it's quality not quantity that counts most. Instead of racing through your reps concentrate on slow movements that engage the muscles throughout the exercise (not just the up phase).

Heidi Kelchner is managing editor of Her Sports.

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