Can You Avoid Back Pain By Lifting More Heavy Things?

Leaning into the movements we fear is part of the journey toward healing.

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Posted in , May 18, 2018

Woman lifting weights

Most people I know have low back problems, either periodically or chronically. This isn’t unsurprising, given that around 80 percent of American adults report some sort of lower back pain. Products, classes and therapy sessions are all devoted to the basic question, “how can this pain be prevented, avoided and healed?” 

When backs feel vulnerable, our first instinct is to stay away from lifting heavy objects. When my back is on the brink, I remember the acronym “BLT,” meaning “bend, lift and twist.” Alone or in combination, these are the motions that can push a tender back into the category of full-fledged injury. 

But there is a converse argument, one that can promote both lower back health and overall emotional well-being. It goes like this: to prevent back pain, we should actually lift more.

Research has shown that avoiding heavy lifting doesn’t actually prevent back pain because it leaves our joints and muscles unchallenged. In fact, a study performed on strong, healthy astronauts showed that in the zero-gravity environment of space, the astronauts developed pain and instability in their lumbar spines. The “prolonged unloading” of the spinal muscles wasn’t restful or restorative to them. It was damaging. 

With this in mind, we would be wise to revisit the notion that we can protect our backs by staying away from challenges. Any form of exercise puts stress on our joints and muscles—the right exercises will challenge our bodies in ways that help it strengthen, grow more flexible and stabilize. In a healthy, measured way, we can push back against the idea that we are too tight to bend, too weak to lift or too rigid to twist.

If we change our outlook on our daily physical movements, we might reap other benefits as well. Avoiding certain actions because we fear pain denies us important opportunities to grow stronger. Similarly, steering clear of challenging situations can hold us back in our lives, in our work and in our relationships. 

It is crucial not to over-do it in the heavy lifting department. I mean this literally—if you haven’t been doing much lifting, don’t single-handedly attempt to move the couch this weekend. But I also mean it metaphorically—think of ways you can challenge yourself just a little bit more, building on whatever strength you already have. There’s probably more there than you think.

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