Shore up your core

Building the strength of the central muscles in your torso can help improve your balance and mobility.

You probably don't give a lot of thought to your core muscles, but they play a starring role in your daily life.

"The core is critical for stability and functional motion day to day," says Dr. Beth Frates, clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. "For example, standing, bending, twisting, and sitting all require the core muscles. With a strong core, people can reach for glasses on high shelves and stay balanced while walking with heavy grocery bags."

Many people think of the abs — that is, the abdominal muscles — when they think of the core. But your core muscles actually are a much larger group. Essentially, your core includes all the major muscles in the area that connects your upper and lower body: not just the abdominal muscles, but also those in the back, sides, hips, and buttocks. The core also includes the muscles in your pelvis, including those that help support your bladder, uterus, and other internal organs.

Strengthen your pelvic muscles

Kegel exercises can help you strengthen the pelvic muscles that support your uterus, bladder, and other pelvic organs. Not sure how to perform Kegels? Experts suggest tightening the muscles in your vaginal and anal area just as you would to control gas. Squeeze, hold for five seconds, relax, and repeat. Doing 10 or 15 repetitions three times a day can help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles over time.

Dwindling muscle strength

If you're over 30 and don't do strength-building exercises regularly, chances are you already have weaker core muscles than you did in your 20s. Experts estimate that for every 10 years after age 30, people can lose 3% to 5% of their muscle mass, says Dr. Frates. "This refers to muscle mass throughout the body," she says. So, a 50-year-old woman who hasn't kept in shape might have already lost 10% of her muscle mass.

"The core is something that people tend to work on with personal trainers. But people who are not going to a gym and are not exercising are likely losing musculature everywhere, including their core," says Dr. Frates.

When core muscles are weak, you not only may have a harder time performing daily tasks, but also could experience back pain, poor posture, incontinence, or balance problems that make you more prone to falls.

What can you do to bolster your core muscles? There's a host of exercises that can work this area. Below and at left are some examples that you can add to your routine. Ideally, you should strive to perform strength-building exercises at least twice a week in addition to your regular cardiovascular workouts.

Front plank

Level 1: Front plank on knees

Get down on all fours with your hands and knees directly aligned under your shoulders and hips. Tighten your abdominal muscles, and walk your hands forward. Lower your upper body onto your forearms and drop your hips so your body is in line from your head to your knees, like a plank. Clasp your hands and align your shoulders directly over your elbows. Hold. This is one rep. Aim to hold for a total of 60 seconds, doing as many reps as needed to reach that total. For example, if you can hold a plank for 15 seconds, you would do four reps.

Level 2: Front plank

Start on your hands and knees. Tighten your abdominal muscles and lower your upper body onto your forearms, clasping your hands together and aligning your shoulders directly over your elbows. Extend both legs with your feet flexed and toes touching the floor so that you balance your body in a line like a plank. Hold. This is one rep. Aim to hold for a total of 60 seconds, doing as many reps as needed to reach that total. For example, if you can hold a plank for 15 seconds, you would do four reps.

Image: © SDI Productions/Getty Images
Core exercise photos by Michael Carroll

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