In particular, when we get older, the way we use our core changes, so we should be changing up our core workouts, too. “As you age, you will naturally lose your balance,” says Natalie Sampson, DPT, owner of Symmetry Physical Therapy in Southern California. The decline of balance occurs neurologically with age unless we work to strengthen it. “We typically don’t notice it until we try to stand on one leg,” she says. “Having a strong core helps maintain balance and aids our postural alignment and strength.”
- Natalie Sampson, DPT, owner of Symmetry Physical Therapy in Calabasas, California
Our bodies also don’t renew the same way they did when we were younger. “Our cellular turnover declines with age, which means we start to lose muscle mass and bone density,” Dr. Sampson explains. “Our cells go through remodeling. When you’re young, you break down bone and muscle, and regenerate with more. As you age, there is a decrease in that. You don’t build as much bone and muscle, and what goes away doesn’t come back at 100 percent like it used to, unless you train for it.”
That loss of balance and bone density is a dangerous double whammy: Falls are a huge risk factor as we age, and hip fractures specifically have a direct link to morbidity. According to a study published in Geriatric Orthopedic Surgery & Rehabilitation looking at hip fractures in seniors ages 60 and older, “the reported 1-year mortality rate after sustaining a hip fracture has been estimated to be 14% to 58%.”
The good news? Building a strong core can help maintain a foundation to safeguard your balance and allow you to continue strength training to keep up your muscle mass and stay strong. “You can’t have good balance without a nice stable core,” Dr. Sampson says. “Your core is the foundation for all movements for the lower body and the upper body, and it stabilizes us as we move through space.”
Dr. Sampson suggests these three functional exercises that will activate your transverse abdominis (the deepest layer of abdominal muscles) and other stabilizing core muscles such as your lats and your pelvic stabilizers.
- Start by laying on your back. Lift your legs up to a tabletop position with knees bent at a 90-degree angle and stacked over your hips. Bring your arms toward the ceiling with your wrists directly above your shoulders. “Make sure your pelvis/low back is neutral,” says Dr. Sampson.
- Slowly lower your right leg and your left arm toward the floor at the same time, moving your arm from the armpit, and your leg from the hip.
- Return to the starting position and repeat with your left leg and your right arm.
- Continue alternating for three sets of 10 reps.
Tip: Only go as far as your range of motion allows while maintaining a neutral spine and keeping your shoulder blades reaching down your back. Dr. Sampson encourages using your breath throughout, saying, “Inhale to prepare, exhale as you move away. The exhale keeps the core engaged.”
- Start in a tabletop position on all fours with your knees directly under your hips, and your wrists under your shoulders.
- Reach your right arm forward and your left leg behind you at the same time.
- Return to the starting position, then repeat with the left arm and the right leg.
- Continue to alternate for three sets of 10 reps.
Tip: “Reach as far as you can without losing alignment or lat engagement on the supporting side," says Dr. Sampson. "It’s not the reach that is working; it’s the opposite side for stability. Your core stabilizes you as your arms and legs move.”
Standing Single Leg Balance
- Start standing with your feet hips-distance apart, holding something stable like a counter.
- Lift your right leg up to the front for 20 seconds. (Only bring it out as far as you can while maintaining an upright posture.)
- Bring the leg back down, then lift toward the side and hold for 20 seconds.
- Bring the leg back down, then lift it straight back and hold for 20 seconds.
- Repeat on the left leg.
Tip: “Make sure your pelvis stays level, and recruit your glutes to help you,” says Dr. Sampson. “Think about your foot as a tripod, balancing on the ball of big toe, ball of the little toe, and heel.”
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