It's never too late to begin strengthening core muscles, the 'guy wire to stability and mobility'
Judy Shettleroe, 74, and Gen Shelton, 64, take really good care of their chassis, or what most people refer to as their core muscles. They began paying attention to these all-important muscles surrounding their back, front, hips and pelvis only a few years ago and literally shudder to think what their lives might be like if they hadn't started.
"The first thing Michelle told me is 'know where your feet are at all times.' It was like a light bulb went off," said Shelton. "It's made a big difference. My back used to hurt all the time. I'm thinking about traveling -- I wouldn't have before."
"It really builds your confidence," said Shettleroe, who began working on her core and balance after she and her husband, Bob, tumbled down an escalator while traveling abroad. Instead of staying home to avoid falls, they went the YMCA of Monroe County. "I'm watching my friends fall apart, the ones who don't exercise. Why would you want to settle for settling?"
With core muscles, it's a classic case of "use 'em or lose 'em," says Michelle Miller, an exercise physiologist at Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. She also designed popular balance classes at the YMCA and works with clients such as Shettleroe and Shelton as a personal trainer. The good news, Miller says, is that core muscles can always be improved, regardless of one's age, and the exercises involved can be as simple as sitting at the edge of a chair and engaging correct posture.
Shelton and Shettleroe, both of Bloomington, opt for a stability ball, sitting on one on a regular basis while they fold laundry, watch TV or just rest -- and they keep it in plain sight to remind them to use it.
"You can't slouch on an exercise ball," Shettleroe said.
The payoff of working the core is worth the effort. Shettleroe describes it as the body's chassis.
"It's so much a part of your everyday activities," she said. "You engage your core when you lift things, move things, go up and down steps."
Miller is more philosophical.
"Core stability and postural alignment ultimately define our presence. That's pretty profound, but it expresses our poise and confidence and most importantly it determines whether we can move efficiently and effectively," Miller said. "Every move that we make is initiated through the core of the body."
A strong core is key to good posture and for doing most day-to-day activities with ease, such as getting in or out of a car or reaching for a book from a shelf. It's the "guy wire to stability and mobility," says Miller. Weak core muscles can result in poor posture, increased susceptibility to back injuries, poor balance, lack of range of motion, and an altered walking stride.
"You don't start having poor gait because you get older," Miller said. "It happens because we stop moving properly or we're not moving efficiently."
Try Miller's one-word cues:
- Press heels into the surface and sit bones into the chair and then extend up and through the hips, as if pulled up by belt loops
- Zip by lifting through the belly button and extending the spine upward
- Open through the shoulders and chest and continue to lift
- Depress shoulder blades down and into the center of the back, as if putting shoulders in back pockets
- Extend the neck up as if being lifted up by your ears, head shouldn't be tipped down
- Draw the chin back and slightly in, ears should line up over shoulders, eyes look straight ahead
How to get started
First, see how it feels to turn on core muscles -- this takes less than a minute. Sit on the edge of a firm chair with feet and legs at a 90 degree angle and place both hands on the front of the body. Remember, said Miller, with every action there is a reaction. Now draw the bellybutton or midsection toward the center and pretend to lift at the same time to feel contracted and lengthened throughout the middle the body -- but not so much you hold your breath. Miller often tells clients to imaging putting on a tight jacket and then zipping it up. When doing this, the front and back of the body should contract at the same time.
Finding the neutral position of the hips is important for proper posture. The hips should not be tipped forward or backward. Miller encourages people to "think of your pelvis as a bucket of water -- tipping means spilling."
Now, for the shoulders and head. The head should not jut forward, nor the shoulders round in -- have them face straight ahead, chest high and sit tall.
"If you can hold this position sitting, you can hold it when you walk, drive, do household chores or other leisure time activities," Miller said. "There's no down time for the core -- it always has to hold you upright, so it needs to be strong, ready and willing."
Here are some tips about core work:
- Don't underestimate the power of core muscles or overestimate their ability -- they are muscles and as such should be respected for what they do by turning them on and using them correctly.
- Don't worry about high-tech gear or fancy machines. What you have is all you need -- your body. So get to know it. Core exercises also don't require lots of sweating, push-ups and sit-ups -- they can be performed in street clothes and can be done while sitting, standing or lying down.
- Don't waste time and energy doing this incorrectly. You need to understand how to maintain proper alignment of the trunk, which automatically makes the core do its job all day long. Core exercises miss the mark if the person doing them is using the wrong muscles. Miller encourages people to feel their muscles "turn on" with their hands to become aware of how they feel when they are called upon and when they are at rest. Technique is key to getting the most out of core exercises so Miller recommends that people seek help from fitness specialists who are familiar with anatomy and posture mechanics.
- Don't push it. Core exercises progress in difficulty, Miller said, so people should begin at a level that is appropriate for their bodies. Plank exercises, for example, are considered an advanced exercise. Follow the cues given above -- this will be a good start to improving your core and your posture.
In recent years, more attention has been given to the need for seniors to be more physically active. Miller says core exercises should become part of any exercise regimen but they also should be integrated with daily activities. The core is not a separate entity in the body, she says, "it is the foundation." She said learning to use the core effectively throughout the day will help people be more productive and energetic.
She encourages people to remind themselves to practice turning on core muscles during common activities, such as brushing one's teeth, standing in line, or sitting in traffic at a red light. Repetition, she says, turns core strengthening into a habit and then ultimately into a healthy behavior. Information about core exercises can be found online at such sites as American Council on Exercise, http://www.acefitness.org/workouts/5/, and Mayoclinic.com, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/core-strength/SM00047.
To read more articles from the Department of Kinesiology in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, visit http://newsinfo.iu.edu/cat/page/normal/356.html.