Why It’s Good to Go Backward Sometimes

As promised at the beginning of the year, I’m providing more information that is geared toward the “no-longer 20s” group, but hopefully without an attitude of ageism. Ageism is defined as, “the process of systematic stereotyping and discriminating against people because they are old.” The truth is that many older people are more fit than younger people. Everyone has certain limitations, whether they have gray hair or not! Although this article will begin a series that will address issues with which baby boomers and beyond struggle, it’s important to note that most of the information can apply to anyone. We all need to exercise in a way that strengthens us for the daily activities we enjoy, and protects us from injuries that can put a halt to them. So, let’s move backward today.


I’ve been taking the CECs (continuing education credits) required to update my ACE certification, and I chose to focus on injury and pain prevention. Did you know that around 80% of Americans suffer from back pain at some point in their lives? One of the best ways to avoid this sometimes debilitating dilemma is by strengthening all of the muscles in the core, shoulders, and pelvis, providing a strong system of support for the spine. And new guidelines have recently come out from the American College of Physicians, stating that patients with back pain should first try non-medication therapies, like exercise. 


Whether you’re a teenager, a young or middle-aged adult, or a grandparent, you most likely have rounded shoulders and a forward head thrust, to one degree or another. That’s because we spend many hours hunched over our computers and phones, curled up on a couch watching TV, and simply slouching. Older adults have spent more years in this position, even if it hasn’t been due to technology. They’ve held babies and grand babies, spent hours rounded over pots and pans, and hunched over as they’ve repaired cars, cleaned house, and pursued hobbies like sewing or gardening.


The longer we stay in a forward-rounded posture, the weaker our posterior back muscles become, making it more and more difficult to open up the chest and stand tall. This puts pressure on the spine and the surrounding soft tissues, which will eventually lead to back pain. For this reason, most older adults (and many younger adults) need an intentional exercise program that focuses on movements that strengthen the posterior back muscles and lengthen the anterior core muscles. 


One simple way to begin opening the chest is to change the way we work our abdominals from time to time. Instead of crunches, roll-ups, or other ab workouts where the shoulder and head are lifted and the upper body is rounded forward, do your abdominal exercises with the torso and head flat on the floor. Here’s how: 


a) Lie down on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Arms are in close to your sides with palms up. Breathe deeply and allow your muscles to relax. Feel the natural curve of a neutral spine. The lumbar (lower back) and cervical spine do not touch the floor, but are curved upward slightly. However, you should only have enough space under the lower back to insert a pencil.


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b) Now, fire up the abs to hold the neutral spine in place, as you lift the legs into table-top (i.e., knees are bent at a 90 degree angle, thighs are perpendicular to the floor, and the lower legs are parallel to the floor.) Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed, but your abs engaged. This should be difficult, and you might not be able to do anything more than simply hold this position for 15-30 seconds. Lower the legs if you can no longer keep a neutral spine. 


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c) Once you can hold the above position for 30 seconds, add a challenge. From table top, lower one leg, moving at the hip joint only, and keeping the knee at a 90 degree angle. Lightly touch the ground with your toe then bring it back to table top. Do 10 repetitions on one side, then 10 on the other side, making sure your hip bones remain still. (As an easier progression, keep both feet on the floor and raise one leg at a time to table-top, always keeping your abs engaged so the back stays neutral.) If you’re able, add 10 alternating taps, moving one leg down as the other goes up. 


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d) Tack on another challenge to the above exercises. This is especially beneficial for those with a very pronounced rounded upper back (kyphosis). It might be uncomfortable, but should not be painful. Take your arms straight out to the sides then bend at the elbows in “goal-post” arms. The elbows should be in line with the shoulders, or slightly below shoulder level, if needed. This helps to flatten out the thoracic spine and pulls the shoulders back, but make sure you don’t pop the ribs up and arch the lower back. Do as many of the above exercises as you can in this position, moving the arms back in by the sides if you feel pain or lose your proper alignment.


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This is a great way to work the abdominals while keeping an open chest and strengthening the muscles that hold your upper back in the correct posture. I incorporate these exercises into my private classes on a regular basis. Contact me if you’d like more information about taking a class. 


References:

Lower Back Ache? Be Active and Wait It Out, New Guidelines Say, by Gina Kolata. The New York Times. Feb. 13, 2017.

Ageism and the Fitness Industry, by Cody Sipe. IDEA Fitness Journal. January 2017.

7 Principles for Outstanding Boomer Workouts, by Kimberly Williams-Evans. IDEA Fitness Journal. January 2017.

© Bobbi Mullins 2011, All rights reserved. FOOD FITNESS FAITH™