At the core of every outdoor enthusiast is, well, their core: the complex series of muscles that attach to the spine and pelvis and are inextricably tied to our movements. The core and back muscles are closely connected, and whether you’re a dirtbag crag climber, a muddy-legged mountain biker, or a long distance running phenom, you are all too aware that when your back is out of commission, so are you.
So for insight on how to keep an out-of-whack back from knocking us off track, we sat down with OrthoCarolina’s Molly Dudick. With nearly three decades' worth of physical therapy expertise and a specialty in all things spine-related, Dudick explains the power of movement, gives tips on surviving long hours in the office, and shares why Charlotte’s greenway system might just be the best prescription for a healthy spine, core, and back.
Dudick runs with her dog. The physical therapist believes in the power of movement to maintain back health. Molly Dudick
With your expertise as a physical therapist specializing in the spine, what is a common injury you see?
Herniated discs are very common. It’s brought on by a sedentary lifestyle. People think that it happens from heavy lifting, but it is often caused by sitting for long periods throughout the day.
Four Mile Creek Greenway is Dudick's favorite greenway escape. Mark Catoe
How can a cube or office dweller avoid this injury?
Stand up at your desk and work standing up if you can. While sitting, come to the edge of your seat and sit nice and tall. Take your back through a full range of motion occasionally.
If you sit where you can’t get up frequently, get a seating wedge cushion. It prepositions you into an anterior tilt. That keeps the pressure on the disc more towards the back—it doesn’t push out where your nerves are.
Also, the chair should be so the knees are slightly lower than the hips. That puts you in a slightly forward tilt position so everything else will stack up. This improves your posture so you don’t slouch. When you slouch, that puts pressure on the front part of your disc and pushes disc material backward. It over-stretches the big ligament that contains the disc.
The multitude of trails at Crowders Mountain State Park are Dudick's pick for a quick hike. Rob Glover
What movements can we do while sitting to help out our backs?
First, come to the edge of your chair and stick your leg out straight, heel on the floor, and lean forward at the hip. You can also cross you ankle over your knee while you’re sitting. Then lean forward at the hip, not at the back. Finally, turn in your chair and grab the seat back. Twist gently.
For people looking to get active, what should they know to avoid back injury?
It’s important to train your body the way you’re going to use it. If you want to run, walk, hike, you can’t just go out and do only that. You need to stretch your hips, quads, and lower back. And you need to strengthen your core and your hips.
What are some of your favorite ways to keep moving?
I hike at Crowders and kayak at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. For a person who wants to get active, the greenways are a great place to start. They’re not too difficult and there are plenty of benches if they need a place to rest.
The greater Charlotte area has a tremendous greenway system that includes hundreds of miles of paved, crushed stone, and natural surface trail. Molly likes Four Mile Creek Greenway for its unusual variety of scenery, including a section of swampy area. For dog walkers, Dudick suggests Sugar Creek Greenway and a stop at Vivice for its dog-friendly outdoor patio overlooking the trail.