Our ancestors might have been surprised to know that future generations would struggle to keep their muscles strong. After all, it took lots of work to survive each day — farming, hunting, hand-washing clothes, and walking or riding animals to get around. All of that activity helped people maintain muscle strength.
Now it takes a concerted effort to strengthen the muscles, especially in the core (the abdomen, hips, back, and chest). Core muscles help us bend, lift, sit, stand, climb, and stay active and independent.
You should do a core workout at least two or three times per week. Or take a cue from our ancestors and do daily core-boosting activities. There are so many kinds that you can do a different one every day of the week, and it doesn't have to be fancy.
"Variety keeps it interesting. And it's safe to work the core every day for about 10 to 30 minutes, as long as you don't have intense muscle fatigue," says Christina Ruggeri, a physical therapist in the Sports Medicine Division of Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
Put on your favorite Sousa march, lift your knees high, and move your arms to the music. March around your house or even your neighborhood. If you need more stability, try one of these approaches.
March near a countertop for support. "Don't sway from side to side. Keep your spine straight and your torso upright," Ruggeri advises.
March while seated. "Scoot your bottom forward on the chair, so your back is not supported and you have to engage your abdominal and back muscles to sit up straight," Ruggeri says. To make it harder, sit on a stability ball. "It forces you to engage the core muscles just to maintain your balance, so you'll work the core even more," Ruggeri says.
Monday: A resistance band workout
Get some inexpensive resistance bands (long elastic bands, about $12, available online or at a big-box store) and follow a resistance band workout. You can find resistance band workout videos on YouTube.
An example of a resistance band exercise that works your core is doing rows. Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Loop a resistance band around the soles of your feet (see "Move of the month"). Hold one end of the band in each hand. Bend your elbows and pull both ends of the band toward you, like you're pulling oars. Repeat the rowing movement 10 times, take a break, and do another 10. You can also do this activity while seated and sitting up straight.
Move of the month: Seated row
Sit on the floor with your legs stretched in front of you. Wrap the middle of a resistance band around the soles of your feet. Slowly pull the ends of the band toward you, like you're rowing a boat, and then straighten your arms. Repeat 10 times, keeping your back straight and your elbows close to your body as you pull. Take a break, then repeat the process.
Tuesday: A water workout
Swim some laps or walk in the shallow end of a pool. Both activities work the core muscles in the back and abdomen. "It's especially helpful for people with arthritis. The buoyancy offloads pressure on the joints," Ruggeri says. Working against the resistance of the water is good for your bones.
Other water activities that engage the core include treading water (even if you're holding a pool noodle), swimming while holding a kickboard, and water aerobics.
For all water exercise, start with five or 10 minutes of activity, and slowly increase the workout length over time.
Wednesday: Yard or housework
Turn yard work or housework into a core workout: tighten your abdominal muscles as you lift a basket of laundry, carry groceries, climb stairs, push a vacuum back and forth, rake leaves, or shovel snow. Those activities engage the core muscles. Tightening them while you work protects them against injury.
It's important to maintain good posture and be kind to your knees while you work. "Keep your back straight and hinge at the hips if you have to lean forward to rake. Kneel on just one knee when gardening. And use a staggered stance — with one leg in front of the other — when pushing and pulling a vacuum, to help keep your back straight," Ruggeri suggests.
Thursday: Body-weight workout
You can use your own body weight to strengthen your core muscles. Try a series of lunges, squats, and modified planks (lean toward a desk or countertop, prop yourself up on your elbows, and hold the position).
The key to maximizing core benefits and staying safe is keeping your back straight and tightening your abdominal muscles. But ease into a body-weight routine. "Don't just try a 30-second plank. That sets you up for failure. Do it for five seconds, and increase it in five-second increments as you get better at it," Ruggeri says.
Friday: A hip-swiveling workout
Get out of your comfort zone and try something different, like a hip-swiveling workout. This could be hula hooping, merengue dancing, or belly dancing.
Search YouTube for hip-swiveling workout videos and see what appeals to you. And it's okay if you're not as limber as you once were. "It's harder to move your hips when you're older, but it incorporates a lot of your core muscles — and it's fun," Ruggeri says.
She notes that a hip-swiveling workout could be risky if you have arthritis in your lower back or hip, so be sure to get the okay from your doctor first, and then follow only a beginner workout.
Do some yoga, which strengthens your core muscles and also stretches them.
Yoga has many other benefits, too: it helps improve your balance, flexibility, overall strength, mobility, mood, range of motion, reflexes, focus, and quality of life. The exercise works by combining breathing techniques with mostly static (still) postures. "You need to engage your core in order to maintain stability for the duration of the pose or stretch," Ruggeri says.
You can also practice yoga while seated. Just scoot forward in the chair so you activate your core muscles.
Warm-up and cool-down
With any core-strengthening exercise, you need to get your blood flowing to the core muscles first. To warm up, walk around for a few minutes and move your arms around. After exercising, cool down by stretching your core muscles; this will help lengthen them and keep them flexible.
The stronger and more flexible you become, the more you'll be able to do the activities necessary to get through your 21st-century day. And that's something that would make your ancestors proud.
Image: © Thomas Barwick/Getty Images