One of my discoveries in the gait laboratory that led to a number of research publications as well as a prestigious multi-million dollar research award from the National Institutes of Health, culminated in my recommending one, and only one, stretching exercise that I think we all need to do on a daily, if not twice a day, basis.
I found that for many of us, when we walk, our hips do not fully hyperextend (bend backwards). This might not seem like a big deal, but in order to take a step, if your hip does not fully hyperextend to a normal 20 degrees of hyperextension, your low back ends up having to hyperextend more than it otherwise would. While movement through your hips is a good thing, you really don’t want to have a lot of movement, especially hyperextension, through your low back because that causes excessive wear and tear through the spinal structures that can contribute to low back pain.
It took biomechanical studies to make this discovery. It is impossible for even the most astute clinician to distinguish between hip and low back movement during walking. But with the use of cameras and markers placed on various anatomic landmarks on the body, I was able to not only distinguish between these two movements during walking, but quantify them as well.
I found that the majority of us over the age of 40 have reduced hip hyperextension during walking (compared to 20 something year-olds) that is invariably associated with increased low back motion and/or a shortened stride. Hip motion during walking is substantially less in elderly adults (over 65 years) compared to young adults and is even less in frail compared to healthy elderly people. Associated with this finding, low back motion during walking tends to increase while stride length decreases with age. People with recurrent low back pain demonstrate less hip hyperextension and greater hyperextension motion in their backs as compared to age-matched controls. People who have what is known as lumbar spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal due to degenerative changes in the surrounding spinal structures) have especially reduced hip hyperextension and increased hyperextension motion in their backs.
So, how do you increase the amount that your hip hyperextends during walking? Easy. You do a simple two-minute stretch. If you already have a limitation in hip hyperextension (like the majority of people over the age of 40), this one stretch, if performed twice a day, will increase your hip hyperextension and reduce motion in the low back within ten weeks if not sooner.
Now mind you, I’m not one for recommending stretching in general. I think most muscles, tendons, and ligaments are better off being dynamically stretched through natural activities, such as walking. But the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in front of the hip are different. They are not fully stretched during most natural activities. Standing, leaning over backwards and even doing a gymnastics type backbend will not fully stretch those tissues around the hip. (Most of the hyperextension in a backbend occurs in the back, not the hip). Only walking and to a lesser extent, running, regularly stretches the hip structures. But regular walking and running may not be enough to prevent a decline in hip hyperextension. And a decline in hip hyperextension only leads to trouble.
Go here to see a video of the one and only stretch that I recommend and regularly do.