Try these two easy exercises to improve your spinal health

How well we age is ultimately about how well we feel.

It’s about not being in pain, being able to move and get around, and do the things we want to do with energy and ease.

How do you feel like you’re doing in that department? A lot of us struggle. Our bodies get tighter and tighter, year after year. The natural progression is to harden, close, shrink and round — to lose mobility and feel increasing aches and pains.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it is possible to turn the tide.

I talked about this recently with Catherine Allen. She’s the most brilliant yoga teacher that I know, and she seems sort of ageless.

Allen looks and moves like a strong and flexible young person, but she has a wizard-like wisdom and aura. She seemed like the right person to ask about why our bodies close off and what we can do about it.

Allen says, not surprisingly, that our modern lifestyle is a main cause for the aforementioned trend. Sitting, driving, spending all day on our tech, etc., is hardening our bodies into what could be considered laptop mode. The middle back is hunched, the head juts out, arms habitually reach forward, shoulders round.

She says a lot of this originates from the thoracic spine, or the middle part of the back (from the base of the neck to the bottom of the ribcage.)

When the thoracic spine is in good shape, we’re able to move up, down, and all around. When it’s compromised by poor posture and well, life, we feel extra tension in the mid back and pain elsewhere as other areas try to compensate. This leads to reduced mobility, and it even inhibits how deeply we’re able to breathe.

On top of that, Allen says that as poor posture becomes more extreme, the vagus nerve gets compressed.

“The vagus nerve is a major player in the parasympathetic nervous system,” she says. When it’s compressed, the body’s ability to rest and digest is inhibited.”

The way we carry ourselves is wearing us out from several different angles.

But the middle back isn’t the only area that Allen thinks is important to address in this department. She says pelvic health impacts the spine and aging, too.

When someone’s pelvis has a forward tilt, for example, the low back is strained by that misalignment, she said. If the pelvis tilts the other way, the upper back takes extra heat.

“When spinal curves are compromised, the body has to overcompensate to hold itself up against gravity. Discs get compressed in the process. Internal organs get compressed. Bodily functions decline over time,” she says.

So, what can we do? How can we open things up and slow or maybe even reverse this gloomy trend?

“I tell my patients that movement is medicine,” says Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Interventional spine Dr. Christina Nguyen of Spine Team Texas in Fort Worth.

I like this advice. It’s basic, and it makes sense.

When you think about it, we tend to have pretty limited movements in our day-to-day lives. Even if you exercise regularly, many workouts consist of the same motions over and over. Running, biking or walking, for example — it’s the same movements, the same muscles, the same activations. It’s great to do these things, but stretching and moving beyond these repetitive patterns is important as well.

Yoga classes are a great way to do this, but even simple actions on our own throughout the day can help mix things up and break our usual molds. Things like stretching our arms overhead more often, doing basic shoulder rolls, and focusing on taking full, deep breaths.

If you want to get even more granular, Allen could easily fill a 90-minute class on all this, but I selected a couple of the exercises she recommends so that you can dabble on your own.

I’m out of practice with this school of yoga (the Forrest Yoga lineage), so I called my good friend and another amazing yoga teacher, Kelly Seibert, to break down these postures.

Shoulder shrugs

Seibert recommends doing shoulder shrugs while seated with your back against a wall and a rolled-up yoga mat positioned upright between your shoulder blades. (You don’t have to be on the floor, you can sit on a chair or stool.)

In this position: inhale slowly and lift your shoulders up toward your ears.

Hold your breath and squeeze the top part of your shoulder blades together.

Exhale and glide shoulder blades down your back — squeezing that upper portion gently together as you do.

Repeat this two more times. Next time focus on squeezing the middle part of your shoulder blades, then the lower part.

Pelvic tilts

Seibert says this one may be most approachable by lying on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat.

Slow down and deepen your breath.

With an exhale, gently tilt your pelvis so that you flatten your lower back onto the floor—it will feel like you are lengthening your tailbone toward your heels. Do this without actually lifting the back or hips off the floor.

Feel how this movement gently engages your core.

Do a few rounds with slow and steady deep breaths.

There’s a lot of subtlety to moves like these. Seibert and Allen both teach classes online where they do a great job breaking down these kinds of exercises. Their respective websites are and

I’m also offering a free gentle yoga class later this month that’s all about meditative movements and intentional stretches. Information on that is at

The bottom line here is to pay attention to spinal health: see how you can start getting more mobility in your upper back by opening your chest and moving your shoulders, and how you can become more connected with your core and pelvis. Be playful, and look for new ways to move and groove with this stuff in mind.

Let’s stay vital and able for as long as we possibly can. Let’s make our ages race to catch up.

Marci Izard Sharif, an author, yoga teacher, meditation facilitator and mother, writes in Feeling Matters about self-love, sharing self-care tools, stories and resources that center around knowing and being kind to yourself.

Related Posts