Maybe you haven’t noticed, but workouts are getting easier and more convenient. Back in the 1980s, exercise was nothing unless it involved a mirrored room full of sweaty people, all caught up in a fast-paced “feel the burn” group ritual like aerobics. Starting in the ’90s, things began to simplify somewhat, with an emphasis on a range of moderate to vigorous exercises like weight training, hiking and yoga.
Today’s fitness trends may be harder to sum up, but judging from the guidelines recommended by the National Institute on Aging, we now have greater leeway when it comes to exercise. Indeed, judging from the title of the institute’s free booklet, Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide (available at nia.nih.gov), and the many exercise options it contains, the new emphasis is on everyday activity that falls into the “keep moving” category. That might include two-and-a-half hours of brisk walking or an hour and 15 minutes of jogging or running each week, so long as you move on to what’s known as an integrated workout.
The NIA acknowledges that the key change in its 2009 guidelines is the stipulation that older adults (the 50-plus group) need to supplement their cardio workout days with muscle-strengthening activities or core strength development. Physical fitness professionals tend to use the terms “full body” and “core conditioning.” Regardless, the idea is to develop your body “from the inside out,” says John Rosado, a trainer at Sweat Fitness in King of Prussia. “Ninety-five percent of people who come to the gym want to tone up and lose weight. Many of them are de-conditioned, I would say. They have all sorts of joint issues, or posture and flexibility issues, from sitting at the computer all day or from not being very physical.”
Along with the requisite exercise machines and weight-training areas, Sweat offers unusual classes with names like “Hip-Hop Cardio” and “Trampoline-Based Urban Reboundin.” Rosado is likely to steer “de-conditioned” newcomers away from all of that and begin with an easy visual evaluation followed by basic core-strengthening exercises.
On my own visit, the evaluation included an overhead squat test, which involved bending my knees in a squat position while holding a light wooden bar above my head with outstretched arms. Rosado stood by with a clipboard, visually moving down a page as he checked off what, to me, was an alarmingly high number of problem points.
“We want to see how your body moves,” he says. “I can tell right away what [core] strength exercises you’ll need just by seeing how flexible you are or how tight you are in certain muscles.”
Apparently, I had weak abdominals and my “scapula wings,” or shoulder blades, were pronounced. The more serious issue was my perception that I was fit merely because I go to a gym three times a week.
Like the name implies, core-strengthening exercises involve muscles of the body’s midsection or core—muscles especially apparent when you lie on your back, pull in or contract your belly button, and do those crunches. That’s not to be confused with developing one’s outward abdominals—the so-called abs or “six packs.” Rather, it’s the ones deep inside your abdomen. “The muscles that help you sit upright,” says Rosado, who often has his clients use stability balls when sitting at their desks or computers. “Developing them is going to improve your posture, too.”
Core strengthening usually involves basic equipment like stretching or resistance bands, large stability balls and smaller weighted balls. The exercises Rosado recommended for me required nothing more than a mat.
At first, the shoulder and back issues that came up on my squat test seemed unrelated to the exercises he had me try. Aside from the two performed on the floor—the Bridge and the Cobra (see sidebar)—I was asked to stand in an open doorway with my arms at a 90-degree angle along the door frame. I did the “pectoral wall” stretch by leaning forward until I felt a slight pull between my shoulder blades.
With my protruding shoulder blades, I unknowingly risk injury whenever I jump on two of my favorite weight machines: the pull-down and the chest press. The stiffness and soreness I feel in my shoulders after long periods at my desk would be better served by doing simple exercises like the pectoral wall stretch or those that involve raising my shoulders, Rosado says.
So what do my tight shoulder muscles have to do with developing my core? To put it simply, the weak areas around the shoulder and rotator cuff are related to faulty movement patterns in the upper body that, in turn, can affect the stability of my spine. My “wings” were also tied to my ability to rest comfortably on my back, affecting ribcage placement and my pelvic tilt muscles—those responsible for flattening out the stomach when I did my Bridge and Cobra.
The core muscles act as a kind of corset of connective tissue that encircles and holds the spine in place, according to Paul Roscioli, who works as a trainer at Karp Chiropractic and Joint Rehabilitation Center outside of West Chester.
Naturally, the center’s focus on core strength is related to correcting neck and lower-back problems. Roscioli makes a point of telling clients that it’s not the abs that need attention so much as the many muscle groups along the back and sides.
A 2007 graduate in fitness science at West Chester University, Roscioli generally takes his clients through workouts that might include crunches and the “side plank” (lying on your side and raising your upper body). His core exercise program is also done with kettlebells, a kind of medicine ball with handles, as well as the Power Plate, a vibrating exercise that made its debut several years ago amid much fanfare. (Admittedly, some of the publicity had to do with the rumble the Power Plate caused in apartment buildings when the home version came out—like a floor sander in overdrive.)
Roscioli describes the machine as “no sweat,” or low-impact resistance training that can improve your core stability and flexibility in half the time of a conventional workout. The Power Plate’s vibrations intensify any workout because it contracts your muscles while you try to keep your balance. “I can come in here and do a better workout in 15 minutes than most people can get in a week,” Roscioli says.
Even with core strengthening, you need to include the three components of a well-rounded fitness regime: stretching exercises, aerobic or cardio, and strength training. Still, working on your core is one of the best ways to build on your natural athletic ability, plus improve posture, balance and endurance—so you can do things like work in the garden all day without getting sore.
“If I don’t train you at what you ultimately do in real life, I’m not going to help you,” says Roscioli.
• Karp Chiropractic & Joint Rehabilitation Center, 1646 West Chester Pike, Suite 3, West Chester;
(610) 430-6233, karpchiropractic.com
• Sweat Fitness, 217 W. Church Road, King of Prussia; (610) 337-9328, sweatfitness.com
Position: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart. Your arms should rest at your sides. Keep your back in a relaxed position, with no arching or pressing into the floor. Still lying flat, focus on tightening your abdominal muscles. (Imagine your bellybutton being fused to your spine.)
Movement: Slowly raise your hips off the floor until your knees, hips and shoulders are aligned. Imagine you’re forming a flat bridge or incline. Hold for three deep breaths. Return to the start position and repeat up to six times.
Tips: Although the Bridge involves resting points, it should be done in slow, fluid movements. Remember to maintain a proper bridge form throughout. That means not arching your back or tilting your hips. If you have trouble maintaining the Bridge, you’re probably not focusing on tightening your abdominals.
Position: Lie down on your stomach with arms at your sides and palms down. Focus on tightening your abdominal muscles. In doing this exercise, imagine you’re a cobra preparing to strike. (The cobra lifts its head, but only part of its body.)
Movement: Keeping your hips and legs in a relaxed, down position, slowly lift your torso off the floor. Your arms should remain at your sides, with elbows slightly bent and locked. As you move, slowly lift your head back and look at the ceiling. Hold for three deep breaths as you tighten your stomach and press out your chest. Imagine your spine growing longer. Slowly reverse the movement, rest for a moment, then repeat.
Tips: If done incorrectly, this exercise can strain the lower back. Use your arms and hands for balance, not support. You should feel the stretch in your abdominal muscles and only a slight strain in the lower back. Beginners should try four reps, but do more than six at a time.