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Your Health

It all starts with a strong core

Cindy Richards, Editor

Why belly fat is so dangerous

Want to reach something on a high shelf and bring it down to the counter without dropping it? How about getting up from a chair with ease? Or catching yourself when you trip so you don't fall to the ground?

If these are all things you want to do - or do more easily - it's time to get serious about strengthening your core. Your core consists of the muscles of your torso, abdomen, and buttocks. They are the key to just about everything we want our bodies to do, from reaching high, maintaining balance, moving from sitting to standing, even standing in the grocery line.

If these aren't reasons enough to work toward a stronger core, here's one more: a stronger core leads to better posture, which projects confidence and lessens wear and tear on the spine.

"Think of your core muscles as the sturdy central link in a chain connecting your upper and lower body. Whether you're hitting a tennis ball or mopping the floor, the necessary motions either originate in your core, or move through it," says the Harvard Medical School in a special health report, "Core Exercises: 6 Workouts to Tighten Your Abs, Strengthen Your Back and Improve Balance."

Important for good balance

Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas, says stronger core muscles are especially important for older people who worry about falling.

"When you take a step and one foot comes off of the ground, your core muscles go into effect to hold that one leg off the ground. As you get weaker in the core, it gets harder to hold your body up when you are moving from one leg to the other. That's one reason older people get that shuffling gate. It feels more secure to keep both feet on the ground," she says.

Shuffling can compensate for a weak core—until you trip, Bergin says.

"When you trip, one leg is caught so the other leg has to be lifted up and get in front to break the fall. If you don't have core body strength, you can't hold your body up to bring the other leg forward."

Exercises that build a stronger core

Harvard's six workouts feature 9-10 exercises each that combine tough core moves such as the plank (a sort of stationary push-up), squats, and lunges.

Bergin, who also likes her patients to do the sit-ups known as crunches, recommends these two easier-to-do exercises for seniors who want to strengthen their core muscles with less effort. As always, talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine.

  1. Leg lifts. These aren't the muscle-straining leg lifts you remember from high school gym class. They're gentle leg lifts that help with balance. Standing at the kitchen counter, move your weight to one foot and lift the other slightly off the floor. Then switch legs.

    Start slowly. Hold for as long as you reasonably can. For some people, that might be only two seconds in the beginning. Gradually build to more time and, as you feel more confident, move away from the counter. The ultimate goal is to hold each foot off the floor for a full minute without holding on to anything.
    Bergin, 60, who says she "used to trip or fall with some regularity," hasn't fallen since she started doing this exercise eight years ago. Best of all, you can do it anywhere, including while waiting in line at the grocery, while you're waiting for the microwave to boil water for your tea, or while you're brushing your teeth.

  2. Back Presses. Another low-impact core strengthening exercise, this is done sitting in a chair. Put an eight-inch inflatable ball behind you, between your shoulder blades and push back against the ball.

Ask your doctor whether these exercises might lead to stronger and more flexible core muscles for you.