Harvard Health Letter

Avoid back pain and improve balance by strengthening core muscles

ou don't have to do crunches; these simple, gentle exercises will make a big difference.

It's spring, and that means you may be heading out to the golf course or backyard garden. But those activities can also have you heading to the doctor with back pain unless you take steps to strengthen the muscles that support the spine. "It is true in almost all cases that strong muscles help to reduce back pain," says geriatric physical therapy specialist Kelly Macauley, a clinical instructor with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions.

The core is key

The group of muscles that support your spine are known as the core muscles—in your back, buttocks, sides, and pelvis. Important for stability are your rectus abdominis muscles ("abs") at the front of your abdomen, and the internal and external obliques, layered one on top of the other in the front and side of the abdomen. Your transversus abdominis muscles are even more important, says Macauley. These run horizontally across your lower abdomen, commonly referred to as your lower abs. It is also necessary to have strong back muscles, including your erector spinae, the large muscles on either side of your spinal column, and the muscles surrounding your scapulae (shoulder blades).

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