Crispy Gamer

Health Meter: Preventing "Warcraft Back"

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Sure, you may be all decked out in epic gear and wield the nastiest of weapons. From Un'Goro Crater to Hellfire Peninsula, you're just about invincible. Unfortunately, in the real world, it's a different story. If you spend your day hunched over a computer crunching numbers and your night hunched over a computer crushing ogres, then you're a prime candidate for back problems. But just because you're desperate to get your Night Elf up to exalted status with the Aldor doesn't mean you have to do so with a bad case of Warcraft Back.

Back problems aren't limited to members of the Alliance and the Horde, of course. If you're doing a whole lot of sitting and gaming and not enough stretching and strengthening, you're also potentially looking at a case of Grand Theft Ouch or BioShock Spine. At my Boston-area studio, Black Belt Fitness Personal Training I work with plenty of folks who are trying to deal with, or prevent, back problems (and most don't even have epic flying mounts). It's not all that difficult to do, and having a healthy lower back will not only let you level-up pain-free, it'll let you do a lot of real-life things more comfortably.

First, some science. Most back problems aren't the result of an injury, per se. Most are the result of folks asking their back muscles to do stuff that these muscles just aren't strong enough to do. Sometimes that can be something as simple as standing for a long time or grabbing some groceries out of the car. Your erector spinae -- the set of muscles of the lower and middle back -- are responsible for keeping you upright. A lot of times, though, the rest of your body is working against them. If you sit a lot, your hip flexors (at the top of your thighs in the front) and your hamstrings (the big muscles that make up the back of the thigh) can get really tight. This tightness pulls on the lower back muscles, forcing them to work harder and harder until eventually they get aggravated -- and you have back pain.

Most people, when they self-diagnose their problems, decide that if their back hurts, they should just rest it. The problem is that once the pain is gone, they continue to baby their backs. All this does is make the muscles weaker and more prone to future injury. It's a nasty -- and painful -- cycle.

While in a perfect world, you'd just be able to hit the Auction House and buy an amulet, ring or helm that tossed you plus-five lower back strength, reality dictates that you have to boost your stats the old-fashioned way, and we're going to take a two-pronged approach to keeping your lower back happy, healthy and ready for even the longest gaming jag. First, we're going to make sure that all the muscles in the area -- your lower back, hips, hamstrings -- are loose, and then we're going to strengthen the lower back muscles. Make this your pre-gaming routine and you'll be amazed how much better you feel.

First, to stretch.

Cobra Pose

This is a great way to stretch your hip flexors -- the muscles at the top of your thighs in the front -- and it's one of the few yoga postures with a cool name. My theory about yoga is that more people would do it if the poses had cooler names. Pigeon Pose? Downward Dog? I think the people who come up with the names for weapons and characters in games should be in charge of naming poses. I would go to more yoga classes if there were postures called "The Death-Bringer," ?The Widow Maker," or, simply, "Hell." From a push-up position, slowly raise your upper body, while leaving your hips on the floor. You should feel a stretch through your stomach and at the top of the front part of your thighs. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.

Twists

Stretch and loosen your back and entire core -- and improve your ability to see behind you at the same time! With feet shoulder-width apart and your arms in front of you with elbows bent and fists at your chest, twist twice to the right -- attempting to go a little deeper with the second twist. Try to see the wall behind you. Now twist twice to the left. Continue alternating twisting directions for 30 seconds.

Forward Bend

This is a great way to stretch the entire back side of your body -- from your heels all the way up to your neck. If you get really good at it, you'll be able to fit inside a relatively small FedEx box and overnight yourself to just about anywhere in the world! Sit on the floor with your legs together and straight out in front of you. Slowly, while keeping your legs straight and the backs of your knees flat on the floor, lean forward and try to grab your toes. If you can only reach your ankles or lower leg, don't worry. You'll notice improved flexibility and range of motion over time. Try not to bounce. Hold this position for 30 seconds.

And now, to strengthen.

Supermans

To work the muscles in the lower back and also let you feel like the son of Jor-El, lie face down and slowly your lift arms, shoulders, head and legs off of the floor. Try to keep your arms and legs straight with no bend at the elbows or knees. You should feel this in your lower back. You shouldn't feel pain, just an awareness of the muscles working. Hold for 30 seconds.

Alternating All-Fours

To further strengthen your lower back, while also boosting your balance stats, start on all fours with your knees aligned under your hips and your hands directly down from your shoulders. Slowly, while keeping them straight, raise your left arm directly in front of you and your right leg directly in back of you. Try to get both your raised arm and leg parallel to the floor. Hold for 15 seconds and then switch sides, raising your right arm and left leg for 15 seconds.

You want to be on the delivering end -- and not the receiving end -- of the pain when it comes to your gaming. By taking a few precautions to keep your lower back healthy, you'll be able to play longer and happier -- and you won't have to waste any time trying to track down a level 375 chiropractor in Azeroth.