Only head colds keep more people from work than back pain. Half a million Americans go under the knife annually, but conventional wisdom on back health is proving to be more conventional than wise: A 2006 Dartmouth Medical School study showed that herniated disk procedures, the most common back operations in the United States, are no more effective than non-invasive treatments.
Like 80 percent of my fellow adult Homo sapiens, I suffer sporadic back pain. Mine is serious enough to keep me off skis, off the trail, or out of the water two or three times a year. Last year, I crashed on my road bike and my entire back went into seizure, which forced me to pull out of an adventure race in Scotland. I’d come to lose confidence and approach sports more tentatively. Finally, instead of continuing to wince and whine, I visited the Aspen Back Institute in search of a solution that didn’t involve scalpels or the whims of my nasty insurance company.
The innovative three-year-old Colorado clinic, which counts skier Bode Miller and model Elle Macpherson among its clients, hopes to stem a dramatic increase in back surgeries with such basic techniques as, imagine this, exercise. In fact, some 95 percent of ABI clients—many who’d been told they needed surgery—found recovery through strength training, stretching, massage, and stress reduction.
At ABI I was put through the paces on a hulking MedX back strength tester–it looked like a Nautilus crunch machine mashed up with a strange S&M device and a laptop computer. A technician cooed encouragement as I pressed backwards into the padded seat, convincing me that my performance was a feat of unparalleled spinal fortitude. I was chagrined to learn that it was–in the wrong direction. Not only were my back muscles weaker than average, they weren’t even what ABI considers minimally acceptable.
From there we moved to the floor for a series of abdominal tests, where I learned that “Good, Steve!” doesn’t actually mean “good”: My spine-stabilizing transverse abdominal muscle was rated a miserable two out of 10. Then came the fun part, the flexibility test, which turned out to be, essentially, a massage. ABI founder Clint Phillips kneaded me, worked the joints, and then measured elasticity in my hamstrings and other key muscles. Finally, ABI put round colored stickers all over my body, shot photos of me standing, and ran the image through a computer to check posture and alignment.
Flexibility and alignment analysis confirmed I wasn’t damaged, hurt, or hopeless—just rubbery. Except for carrying my head too far forward, which stresses the neck and spine, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me except weak back and ab muscles. The underlying structure supporting my spine was more like popsicle sticks than rebar; for all my daily exercise, cardio wasn’t doing a thing for my back. But, says Phillips, “Twenty minutes of back-specific exercise a day makes a critical difference.”
Sure enough, I followed the 15-minute training regimen he gave me (see video above), then starting using the ABI DVD that came out late last year, and I’ve been doing the exercises almost daily since then. And I can’t yet claim a back of steel, but since sticking to the regimen after my crash, I also haven’t lost a day because of pain since.