It’s hard to overestimate the value of core strength for older people. It can literally change your life and give you many extra years of mobility and freedom.
There was a time when building core strength meant lots of sit-ups and the dreaded stomach crunches, surely one of the least enjoyable exercises ever.
Well, the good news is that the experts believe they aren’t as effective as previously thought and may even be detrimental as you get older. Marty Boehm, a physical therapist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital says in an article published by Harvard University: “In the old days, sit-ups and crunches were the go-to moves to keep your core muscles in good shape. But those exercises are not as effective as we once believed. They strengthen only a few muscles, and they pose risks for older adults.
“They’re dangerous because you’re pulling on your neck. And they don’t train your core. They train the hip flexor muscles. If those muscles get too strong, they pull on the lower back and contribute to back pain.”
Thankfully, there is a better way, but first, why is core strength for older people so important?
Core stability relates to the strength of the muscles in your stomach, back, hips and shoulders. That’s a lot of muscles but they tend to get overlooked as most people concentrate on exercises that strengthens the leg muscles, such as running and cycling, or arm muscles such as push-ups and weights.
Those kinds of exercises are good but it’s also vital to include routines that strengthen the core. This is important because your core is responsible for maintaining good balance and stability; very important as you get older. A strong core will make it easier to walk, run, stand still, sit down, get up again…virtually every movement you make.
It will make it less likely that you will stumble or fall, and will enable you to react more effectively and remain standing if you do happen to trip.
It will also reduce pain in your back, hips and legs. Core exercises are as important as any other but tend to get overlooked. Look in any gym and for every 10 people pounding the treadmill or lifting weights, only one or two will be working on their core.
Professional athletes know the value of core strength and work on it endlessly. World class sprinters develop core strength because it helps them run faster, boxers because it gives them great stability and as for gymnasts, it’s everything to them. When these athletes hold their legs at right angles to their bodies and other incredible shapes, they are using almost superhuman core strength.
They couldn’t perform without it.
Of course, most of us aren’t going to go nearly that far but the core still matters for strength and stability, maintaining good posture as we age and avoiding back, hip and shoulder pain.
The latest thinking on core strength favours reducing or even eliminating stomach crunches, especially as we get older, and focusing more on plank exercises.
These are deceptively attractive at first because they involve simply keeping still in set positions for a minute or so. However, they are surprisingly hard and you’ll find that one minute in plank position can get you as much out of breath as a minute of full-on vigorous movement. But the benefits are enormous.
Boehm explains that they work better because they work several core muscle groups at the same time, “just the way you would naturally if you were lifting something or climbing”.
Exercises for core strength as you get older
Here are some of the key exercises recommended by experts like Boehm to improve core strength as you get older, or at any time of your life.
This can be much harder than it looks so you may struggle if you’ve not done it before. If you do struggle, or if you are a little older, you could start with the modified plank below.
To do the plank, place your elbows on the floor at right angles to your body. Tighten your abdominal muscles and lift your body, supporting yourself only with your elbows and your feet. Keep your back straight. Hold for 10-20 seconds and then relax back into the starting position. Repeat this 10 times, or for as many times as you feel comfortable. You can increase the time you hold each repetition as you gradually get stronger.
The modified plank
Start on all fours. Tighten your abdominal muscles and lower your body taking your weight on your elbows. Keep your shoulders straight and lift your feet in the air behind you. Keep your back straight. Hold the position for 10-20 seconds, then return to the starting position before repeating 10 times.
Opposing arm and leg raises
Start on all fours as with the modified plank. Extend your left leg off the floor behind you and reach out in front with your right arm. Hold the position for 10-20 seconds and then return to the starting position.
Repeat 10 times and then do the same on the other side, lifting your right and extending your left arm.
Once you get comfortable with the first three exercises you could add the side plank. Start by laying on your left side. Then support yourself on your left forearm while you raise your body off the floor. Hold the position for 10-20 seconds and then return to the start position. Repeat 10 times and do the same on the opposite side.
Side plank stretch
As you get stronger, you may wish to add the side plank stretch. This is the same as the side plank with the addition of lifting your non-supporting arm into the air. Hold for 10-20 seconds and return to the start position. Repeat 10 times and then do the same on the opposite side.
The important thing is not to be discouraged if you find them difficult at first. Everyone does. Stick with it and you’ll feel the benefits in terms of better balance and stability, and reduced back, hip and shoulder pain.
The Full Plank
If you’ve come this far, and as your strength develops, you may want to try to full plank. This is tough though so please don’t start with it and don’t worry if you never get this far. It’s possible to get good core strength as you get older without needing to reach this level. Although if you do, it’s quite a bonus.
A nice easy one to finish. It may look harder than the others, but it isn’t. Lie flat on your back, knees bent upright with your feet on the floor. Tighten the muscles in your buttocks and lift your hips until they form a straight line between your knees and your shoulders, creating an approximate 45 degree angle with the floor.. Hold for 10-20 seconds, return to starting position and repeat 10 times.
One of the issues to guard against with these exercises is that they look deceptively simple because they seem to involve nothing more than keeping still. In fact, they are quite difficult because the strength needed to keep your body in those positions is considerable. They can especially difficult, even for relatively fit people, because we don’t tend to exercise our core muscles very much.
They’re rarely the first thing people think of when they think of exercise, and people over the age of 50 may never have even heard of them as they were hardly ever mentioned in gym class at school.
Try to do these exercises four or five times a week to get maximum benefit. You’ll find you will be able to increase the time you hold position as your core strength increases, improving your balance and stability.
You have nothing to lose but your back pain.