Toddlers walk as if they are drunk: tiny, off-balance steps; arms flailing; and the body listing to one side. They move like that because they lack core stability. Core muscles are so essential to movement that parents instinctively start training in early infancy, with activities that give their children the balance, strength and coordination to move effortlessly through the world.
Playtime for my 5-month-old grandson, River, includes tummy time, pulling up to sit and placing interesting objects at enough distance that he has to reach to get them. In essence, they’re working the little guy’s core.
At the other end of the spectrum, the range and variety of our physical activity begins to diminish as we age. We start limiting playful movements like throwing, jumping, hopping or kicking. We stop sitting on the floor because getting back up is too hard. We need our arms to push from a chair or a handrail to climb the stairs. Eventually, even walking and standing become limited.
We can fight against this by building and maintaining core strength and mobility.
From the moment we set foot out of bed in the morning until we nod off at night, all our movement emanates from the core. Most people think of core strength as solid abs. Abs are only one part of the equation.
The core is a group of interconnected muscles that include the abdominals as well as the muscles of the back, hips and pelvis. Some act primarily as stabilizers. These are the deeper muscles that work to maintain proper alignment and prevent excessive movements that can cause injury. They also provide stability and support to the spine and pelvis.
Others act as movers. These larger, more superficial muscles generate the force we need to bend, lift, twist and power our limbs. For instance, throwing a ball transfers power from the lower to the upper body via the core. All powerful movements originate from the core, never from the limbs alone. It’s essential to train both the stabilizers and the movers to maintain a healthy and functional core.
When our core muscles are weakened or tired, we pass the strength needed for daily tasks to muscles and ligaments not meant for these jobs, causing strains or injuries and adding more items to the Activities We No Longer Do list.
Here is my favorite core routine to do two to three times a week. Good form is essential! Try these simple habits to keep the core activated throughout the day:
· Morning Habit 1
Before rising, lie on your back with your knees bent. Imagine pressing your belly button into the mattress for 5 seconds. Do two sets of 15. Get your core ready for the day!
· Morning Habit 2
Balancing on one leg while dressing activates the core one sock at a time. If pulling on your undies, pants and socks becomes easy, it’s time to try standing on one leg while tying your shoes.
· Standing without using your hands when you get out of a chair seems inconsequential but because it’s something you do all day long, it’s a great way to keep the core muscles firing. A tougher challenge is to do it from the floor.
· A staircase is an opportunity to work not just your thighs but also your core strength and balance. Avoid using the handrail except when necessary.
· The Farmer’s Carry is a favorite core exercise of fitness trainers. It entails using equal weights in both hands while walking with a straight spine. A heavy shopping bag is an excellent substitute as you work to keep the core lifted. Avoid tilting!
· Use your phone wisely! At the end of each email read or video viewed, take a moment to lift out of your slump, narrow your waistline and imagine being pulled up by a string from the top of your head. This simple habit can have a powerful impact on your posture and effectively make you look 10 pounds thinner.
· Computer hack! Setting a timer is a great reminder to stand and move every 20 to 60 minutes. Then before reaching for your keyboard, sit tall with your hands in prayer position and twist your spine from your hips through your neck using only your core muscles. Hold for at least 10 seconds. Repeat from side to side.
These are just a few ideas to keep the core fires burning. Fitness is not just about the gym or the workout. It’s about maintaining the functionality to engage in all the physical activities that bring meaning to our lives. We need a strong and healthy core to maintain the strength, balance and coordination to do it all. And if the side effects happen to be toned abs, a slimmer waistline and beautiful posture, I think that’s something we all can live with for a long time.
1 Elbow Plank With Lift and Rock
Start in elbow plank position, forearms on the ground, elbows under shoulders.
Activate core and maintain a straight line from head to heels.
Lift right leg six inches up. Keep hips level.
Rock body to one side.
Return to starting position. Repeat on other side.
Start with 30 seconds, and build to 1 minute.
2 Towel Plank
Start in plank position with a towel (or socks) under the ball of each foot.
Place hands under shoulders, fingers spread wide.
Engage core and keep your body in a straight line with neck in neutral position.
Bring right knee to right elbow, right knee to left elbow, then right knee to nose.
Repeat with other leg. Build up to five rounds.
3 Bird Dog
Start on all fours (knees and hands). Keep back straight, engaging the core.
Extend right arm forward. Contract left glute and extend left leg back. Keep hips and shoulders level.
Pulse for 10 repetitions, maintaining a stable core and keeping body aligned.
Return to all fours.
Repeat on opposite side.
Complete 3 rounds.
4 Toe Tap to Reverse Curl
Lie on back, knees in a tabletop position with arms at low V.
Extend right foot toward the ground while keeping your body stable.
Bring right knee to starting position. Repeat with left leg.
Tuck both knees toward your chest, lifting hips and lower back off ground. Keep knees bent. Hold lower hips and return to tabletop position.
10 rounds. Right leg, left leg, both legs!
5 Standing Lift
Stand with feet hip-width apart, while you hold a medicine ball or weight.
Brace abs and bend knees, sitting into your hips, reaching the ball down across the outside of right leg.
Rotate your body, and swing arms up and to the left. Feel the movement in your midsection throughout the entire motion!
Do 10-12 reps. Repeat on other side.
6 Double-Leg Stretch
Lie on back with legs straight and lifted toward the ceiling.
Lift upper back and head, keeping lower back pressed to floor. Scissor kick your legs, lowering one leg at a time to 45 degrees. As you improve, increase your range of motion.
Reach opposite arm to opposite leg.
10 repetitions each side for a total of 20.
What exercise do YOU try to do on a regular basis? Let us know in the comments below.