Fit After 50: Wake Up Sleeping Abs!

Note: Remember to check with your health care practitioner before trying out any of the suggestions in this blog.

As I have shared in previous posts, I am uncoordinated: always have been and most likely will continue to be. I lack something called “body awareness.” Example: were you to ask me to clench my stomach muscles, I would clench something in an attempt to meet your request but there is a really good chance it would be my neck, butt, or other compensating area. If I were to do regular crunches with this level of unawareness, I would most likely pull up from my neck and shoulders. In my case, I am compensating with other muscles because I really do not know how to target my abs.

Ever do regular crunches and afterwards have a sore neck? You might have more body awareness than I do but guess who is compensating, too!

The real issue with compensating is that you not only are exercising ineffectively, you are leaving yourself open to injury. So, for those of you who, like me, can’t find your abs even with GPS–take heart. It is possible to do crunches without wrenching your neck or hurting your lower back. You just need to do a few remedial moves beforehand.

Begin by waking up the muscles you cannot easily target. For those of you who are abs-unaware, take your fingers and gently press them against your stomach about an inch above your belly button. Clench your abs–you will know when you are successful when you can actually feel the muscles underneath contracting. Check to see if you are also clenching anything else–the goal is to isolate and clench only your abs. Check your butt, lower back, neck, shoulders. If possible, do this in front of a mirror and see if anything else is moving. Nothing else should be moving. Relax all of the other muscles you might be using and try again.

The goal is to be able to do two sets of ten contractions targeting only your abs. When you can do that, then you are worthy of continuing on your journey toward regular crunches.

To be continued…

Fit After 50: Improve Your Strength

Note: Please check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program that involves working with weights or resistance machines. And remember, it is always important to warm up before working with weights and cool down afterwards.

Strength training can involve going to a gym and working out with weights — but it doesn’t have to. There are strength-building exercises that you can do in your own home using the weight of your own body.

In future blog articles and in a future e-book, we will talk about weight training for the purpose of building muscle mass and weight training for the purpose of increasing endurance. We’ll also discuss the differences between using free weights and using range-of-motion resistance machines. For now, however, lets talk about some strength training you can do at home at your own convenience.

There are three areas of your body that you can easily exercise and strengthen at home without using external weights: legs, arms and shoulders, and core — which is your pelvic region, including your stomach and lower back.

Let’s talk about your legs first. You may not realize it, but every time you squat down to sit on the toilet, you are exercising your leg muscles. Why not do five or six squats to the top of the toilet seat each time you need to sit down to take care of business? Or, if the urgency is too great, do the squats AFTER you’ve taken care of business. Gradually work up to ten repetitions.

Of course, you don’t need to do this exercise in the bathroom. You can do it anywhere, at any time. A couple of sets of ten repetitions every day will do wonders for your leg muscles. When you do these knee-bends or squats, make sure you don’t squat too far. One reason for doing them over the toilet seat in the bathroom is to prevent you from squatting too far and damaging your knees.

If you have stairs in your home, another way you can strengthen your legs and hips is to walk up and down the stairs several times a day. Keep your back straight and don’t “pound” your feet on the steps; try to walk lightly, landing on the ball of your foot and springing upward. This will strengthen your calf muscles. Stop immediately if you start to feel dizzy or light-headed.

Now let’s talk about arms and shoulders. There are many different arm motions you can do from either a standing or sitting position that will strengthen your shoulders and upper arms. With your arms at your sides, your hands open, and your thumbs pointing in the direction you are going to move your arms, first raise your arms slowly until they are fully extended above your head; then lower slowly. Repeat ten times. Next, point your thumbs at a 45-degree angle away from your body and raise both arms to a Y-shaped position. Lower slowly and repeat ten times. Finally, turn your hands so that your palms are facing forward and your thumbs are pointing away from your body. Slowly raise your arms sideways to a horizontal position, hold for a count of three, and lower slowly. Repeat that movement ten times also. You’ve just given your arms and shoulders a good workout. Be sure not to “hunch” your shoulders while you are doing these movements.

If you’ve read any articles about fitness in recent years, you’ve undoubtedly read something about the importance of strengthening your “core” — the middle part of your body that includes your stomach and lower back. My favorite at-home core exercise is to lay on my back on the floor and raise my head and upper back off of the floor by tightening my stomach muscles. You will begin to feel soreness in your stomach muscles after just a few repetitions of these movements called “crunches.”

Tina cringed when I mentioned this exercise to her because she has neck problems; she can’t do floor crunches without damaging her neck. So if you have neck problems, or if you can’t lift your head and upper back without pulling forward with your neck, try a different exercise. Lay or your back with your feet together and your hands on the floor next to your body. Keeping your legs straight and your feet touching each other, try to lift your feet and legs off of the floor to a height of two inches or less. Hold the position for a count of five if you can, then slowly lower your heels to the floor and rest. Repeat this up to ten times. As your stomach muscles get stronger over time, try spreading your legs apart and bringing them back together while your heels are two inches above the floor. If you do this exercise consistently, you will eventually be able to spread your legs apart, hold them apart for a count of five, bring them back together, spread them apart again — up to five times — before lowering your heels to the floor.

There are several other good core-strengthening exercises that you can do at home on your living room floor. You can pick up some good ideas here. For even more education about core muscles and exercises, click here.

Have fun with these at-home exercises and improve your strength!

Fit After 50: Stretching: Improve Your Flexibility

NOTE: Once again, be sure to check with your doctor or health care practitioner before testing out any of our suggestions or starting a new exercise program.

As if it is not enough that our skin gets saggy and wrinkled and that our hair turns gray, our muscles and our tendons tend to get tighter as we age, too. Now here we open up a delightfully complicated topic: tight muscles versus over-toned or hypertonic muscles. When I refer to “tight” muscles, I am referring to muscles that have shortened from either lack of use or wrong use (like tight hamstrings from sitting too long or tight shoulder muscles from hunching over a computer keyboard). Hypertonic muscles are muscles that are receiving too many nerve impulses so that the muscles are contracting more than they should and so becoming tight. In this particular article, I am referring to tight muscles from misuse or lack of use. All other issues should be dealt with by your local physical therapist. Trust me on this: after 50, it is very handy to have a PT as your BFF.

Things to keep in mind, though, before you begin:

  • Everyone’s level of flexibility is different. Don’t force any move.
  • Warm up before you stretch. Once again, a warm muscle is less likely to be injured by activity, even stretching. Stretching does not replace warm up activities.
  • Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds before moving to the next one.
  • Never bounce. Stretches should be held. Bouncing causes tight muscles and tendons to tear.
  • Learn the difference between the discomfort of a good stretch and the pain of a bad one. NEVER stretch to the point of pain; it is counterproductive.

Most of the people I know need to stretch their necks, shoulders, hips and hamstrings. There are many different kinds of stretches; here are just a few of the simple ones that I use. If you have favorite ones, we would love to hear about them. Once again, if you have any musculoskeletal problems, please see a physical therapist for stretches and exercises targeted for your specific issues.

Neck stretch: Turn your head as far as you can to the left and hold for 30 seconds, and then repeat turning your head to the right. Then tilt your head so that your left ear moves toward your left shoulder and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on the right side.

Shoulder stretch: Standing in front of a wall, walk your fingers up the wall as far as you can and then hold for 30 seconds.

Hip Stretch: Sitting on a chair, put your right ankle on the top of your left knee and gently bend forward until you feel the “pull.” Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side. (Note: Phil just tried this and almost wiped out his knee. If you have knee problems, or if you are not very flexible, this stretch is not for you.)

Hamstrings: Standing in front of a staircase or a small stool, put your right heel on one of the stairs or on the stool. Keeping your back perfectly straight and your knee unlocked, bend forward from the hips until you feel the “pull.” Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the opposite side.