The importance of core strength as we age can not be underestimated. The core of your body is an array of different muscles throughout the hips, abdomen, back and chest. These muscles are important for stability, balance, and effective force transference from your lower body to your upper body. Research shows that as we age, our posture gets worse, we lose muscle strength and flexibility, and our balance becomes worse. This can lead to low back pain, fall risks, and our daily life activities becoming increasingly difficult. Through effective and directed exercise, along with some daily tricks, we train the core to help decrease some of these negative effects.
As we have grown as a society, one thing that has actually become worse is our posture as a whole. Sitting too long on the couch, driving for extended periods of time, or being in front of our work computer for too long can all lead to poor posture. This is when the erecting muscles of the spine, or anti-gravity muscles, become lengthened and weakened. This can then lead into neck and shoulder pain, poor positioning during exercise and overall poor health. It is important to ensure that the muscles of the upper back and spine are strong to help to counteract this. Some exercises that help with this include band pull a parts, cable column face pulls, and dumbbell rows. These exercises will help with rhomboid and mid trap strength. Not only that, they will also work muscles surrounding the shoulder to help keep that joint healthy as well.
On top of performing exercises to help counter poor posture, there are tasks that you can do through the day to help. While working on your computer, set a timer every hour to remind yourself to get up a stretch for a couple minutes. This gets you up and moving and out of the poor position that sitting too long promotes. Another thing that can help is getting a standing desk. Now, don’t only stand at the desk for 8 hours because that isn’t great either. Rather, use the standing desk to be able to transition between sitting and standing. This will help to make sure you aren’t in one position too long.
Utilizing an ergonomic workspace setup is also extremely crucial for preventing poor posture. A couple of things to pay attention to include: making sure your monitor is at or just below eye level, keeping everything you use throughout your day(phone, pens and paper, paperclip holder) are all within arms reach, and that your thighs are roughly perpendicular to the ground. This will limit the stress you put on your body throughout the day by not having to reach too far, look to high or low, or be seated in an improper position. This limits the stress we put through our body by reducing the exertion requited to complete these tasks.
Another thing that can be affected by poor posture and weak core strength is our balance. Through our daily tasks, balance is important to make sure we are properly loading joints and not putting ourselves at risk for a fall. While we are walking, transitioning from seated to standing, or just standing up doing the dishes, balance is used to help us maintain positions. A 2021 study from the Orthopedic Research Online Journal looked at and reviewed 20 previous studies that attempted to correlate core strength and fall risk in older populations. Through the peer review they determined that core strength training does have a positive influence on functional mobility and balance in an older population.
In order to decrease fall risks during aging, exercise should be used, as applicable, to help strengthen muscles of the core and hips. Some of these exercises include tandem walking, bird dogs and dead bugs, along with single leg balance. Also, balance can easily be added to your everyday routine. While brushing your teeth or doing the dishes, try and stand on one foot. During your daily walk, if it is safe, try and imagine you are walking on a tightrope. Again, make sure you feel safe before attempting these activities, but this will help improve balance more quickly.
Since our balance is also directly linked to our cognitive ability, multitasking is also important to help prevent falls. There is a phenomena known as the “stop walking when talking”, that may be observed in some of the elderly population. As we age and our cognitive ability declines, maintaining our balance requires more focus and can proves to be more taxing. This means that it is hard to, as stated above, walk and talk at the same time. This is where multitasking comes into play. While standing on one leg, try and say the alphabet backwards. While walking the tightrope, count backwards from 200 by 7. These types of multitasking activities train your brain more effectively, which leads to more quickly improved balance.
Low Back Pain
One of the more uncomfortable things that can happen with a decrease in core strength as we age is low back pain. According to a 2019 study, low back pain was the leading cause of YLD, or years living with disability. The study showed that with age, prevalence of low back pain increased. Overall, from 1990 to 2017 the prevalent number of people with low back pain increased from 377.5m to 577.0m. Without the strength and stability that your core provides to your spine, low back pain can present. There is too much stress and force being put through the joints themselves when that stress should be put through the muscles surrounding.
Through strengthening the muscles of the core and hips, specifically the glutes, hamstrings, and transverse abdominus, we can help to take stress off of the spine itself and put it through the muscles where it is supposed to be. Some of these muscles can become weak from sitting too much or not enough activity which can increase back pain. Exercises such as side stepping, glute/ham bridges, and plank variations can help with this.
Along with the exercises stated above, there are a few things to do during your day to help with low back pain. While at a stop light, practice engaging your core for 10 seconds at a time. This is a very easy way to help the core learn faster how to engage. Utilizing a simple tip like this can help you use the core more effectively when you progress to harder exercise. Along with this, stretching of the hip flexors throughout the day can prevent an overarching of the low back. This overarching can prove to be painful as it puts your back in a non-optimal position. Practicing these tips daily and working them into your day seamlessly will prove most effective for back pain prevention.
As stated above, the importance of core strength as we age can not be overstated. It helps us to stand up straight, not fall, and reduce our risk for low back pain. It is crucial to ensure that we are living a healthy, pain free lifestyle.