5 Habits in 20s Your Back Will Regret Later

Your back may hate you in midlife for choices you made when you’re young. Learn how to make better choices and counteract lifelong bad back habits.

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John Barcus*, 52, has had back issues for many years, starting in his mid 20s. John attributed his back pain to his days of playing football in high school and college. He knows he was rough on his body back then, overtraining in the weight room and taking many hard hits on the field. John is not surprised by his significant back pain, even two decades later. 

Young man with bad back habitsAvoid these bad habits when you're younger (like going too hard on the field and not resting injuries) to avoid back pain as you get older.

Having back issues as people age is very common. For some, like John, it is easy to make a connection between activities or actions in their youth that led to back issues years later. But for others, it may be harder to pinpoint if they did anything when they were younger that could explain the back problems are having in the present. Is it possible that normal everyday activities such as lifting groceries and giving your kids piggyback rides when they were young?

The answer is yes. It turns out you don’t need to be a footballer to damage your back in your youth that you’ll continue to feel in midlife and beyond. Simple pastimes such as playing basketball or mundane tasks like heavy lifting can lead to significant back issues decades down the line.

 Kaliq Chang, MDan interventional pain management specialist at Atlantic Spine Center of New Jersey explains, “Most likely there will be some indication (at the time) that an injury has occurred, but not always. There may not be an acute injury, but the repetitive stress and impact over time can lead to accelerated spinal degeneration.”

Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of low back pain caused by wear and tear on a spinal disc. The pain associated with degenerative disc disease is usually low-level but chronic with intermittent periods of severe pain due to certain activities (such as sitting in a car for an extended period.) 

Another prevalent issue that can occur with age is osteoarthritis (noninflammatory or degenerative arthritis, called spondylosis when it affects joints in the spine). According to the John Hopkins Medicine website, "Osteoarthritis usually affects the lower back and develops through wear and tear. As the cartilage between the joints slowly breaks down, it leads to inflammation and pain.” 

Dr. Chang cites five reasons that the back pain experienced in midlife could stem from actions you took in young adulthood. 

Engaging in High Impact Activities

While it isn’t surprising to discover that playing tackle football could cause lasting back issues, other sports can cause lasting damage too. Some of the more common ones that can impact long-term back health include participating in basketball, gymnastics, cheerleading, or extreme weightlifting. 

Going "All In" Too Fast 

In general, all increases in activity should be gradual. But going slowly isn’t something most people think about in their 20’ when they are feeling invincible. An “all in” attitude of going hard at a new sport or other activity without building a physical fitness base can be a source of long-term issues. Dr. Chang explains, "The muscles surrounding and supporting the back need to be built up and strengthened slowly over time so that it can accommodate any increases in weight or impact. The spine becomes injured when a force or motion affects the spine much more than the muscles are used to handling."

Not Properly Resting an Injury 

It’s not uncommon, especially for young adults, to “push through the pain” rather than complain of back trouble or allow it to limit them. Dr. Chang explains, “If someone has a known injury or pain in the back, which may not have recovered while they 'push through the pain,' there is potential for the injury to lead to long-term degenerative changes in the spine. The body can compensate for spine injuries in teens and twenties but certainly much less in the thirties and forties age ranges.”

Repeated Heavy Lifting 

Whether it’s taking a job that requiredsdaily heavy lifting or always offering to lend a hand when friends are moving furniture or other heavy objects, repeated heavy lifting can cause lasting back damage.  Especially when kids are young, parents may find themselves carrying them more often, not realizing that this could lead to any long-term damage. 

Improper Lifting Techniques

 From lifting grocery bags in the car to moving furniture between apartments or carrying toddlers through amusement parks, younger adults are constantly using the muscles in their backs for everyday tasks. Understanding proper lifting techniques is imperative for maintaining good back health.  “When you lift, you should bend at the knees to use the power of the legs as much as possible,“ says Dr. Chang, “You want to keep your spine upright and hold any heavy object close to the body when lifting.”

Regardless of your age, it is always important to be cognizant of and listen to your body. While it's easy to dismiss minor back pain as just a part of life, tending to your back and using proper lifting form may help people avoid long-term damage. Dr. Chang says, “Though it is hard to convince 20-year-olds to do so, it is helpful to be mindful of the potential for long-term injury to the spine when engaging in any high impact or heavy lifting activities.”

*name changed for privacy 

Updated on: 06/17/21
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