“You’re too old to get stronger” you tell yourself in the mirror. “You’re no spring chicken” You’re a new grandparent just trying to stay healthy enough to play with your grandchildren, not win “Miss AARP” (Is that a thing? It should be a thing!). Age is a number as seen by fitness greats like the late Jack LaLanne. Health was important to him until the end and he proved that fit had no expiration date. What was his secret? Honestly- a rolling rock gathers no moss. He never settled down in his recliner and binge watched Golden Girls (I don’t think so at least). No, he kept moving, so what can us non-Lalanne people do to keep our body working? (It is a thing!)
Building a strong core is a bunch of buzz-words. It’s not real and in 20 years people will be saying something different. A strong core is not a polished 6 pack abs to go along with your beefy beach muscles, but rather about 8 muscles stabilizing in coordination to prevent unhealthy motion (sheering) of the spine- and that is real! So how can we build this strong core? It’s comprised of flexibility, strength, and one more (secret) component. Let’s start with flexibility. Strength with no flexibility is pointless. It reminds me of a story my friend’s father told me about the time he was being held with his hands behind his back and this big bully came over and started laying punches into him. The bully was incredibly strong, but had no range of motion, so instead of causing damage, he was merely peppering my friend’s dad with gentle taps. The story goes that he had to fake how badly they hurt because the bully kept going…. Which makes me question how true that story was- but the premise remains factual. If we need strength and stability, we must first seek to remove any loss in range of motion. What’s that? You have a stiff and painful back? Just start doing some yoga stretches focusing on improving spinal range and you’ll be fine! This is a common misconception Loss of range of motion is not directly related to pain. Loss of motion doesn’t hurt- quite the opposite! Too much motion is what hurts!!! He are some examples: You suffer mini-whiplash after turning your head too quickly when driving. It hurts when you turn into the other direction now. This is because the muscles around your spine have tensed up to prevent excessive motion. When you’re lying down it feels better, why? You’re using those muscles that are now in spasm. This one is my favorite and much more common than the above. You have pain when you bend down. Old herniated disc injury acting up. Is the pain because you are stiff? Sort of! Often we have pain at our L4-L5 (the joint connecting our 4th and 5th bone in our lower spine). We usually see loss of range of motion, not at L4-L5, but rather at L2-L3 (the joint connecting our 2nd and 3rd bone in our lower spine). L4-L5 presents as having too much motion, hence how a disc could just “slip out”. This is usually not something that happens over night, but rather is a growing issue over years of dysfunction- even if it did just start hurting.
Let’s take this a step further, if one area stiffening up causes too much motion and thus pain in another area- maybe we can count the entire lower spine as having too much motion and then say our mid spine and our hips (the regions right above and right below) are stiff. If this is true, how do we account for that? Before moving forward, it is important that I strongly recommend you seek medical approval before completing either of these stretches. That being said, they are awesome and work great for so many people. Starting with the mid spine, or thoracic spine, we know on most people this area is a stiff region. There is much we can do to improve the range here, but at the end of the day, vigilance in daily stretching is by far the most effective. Our thoracic spine is built to be stiff- not in a bad way, but it has ribs connecting to it and needs to be the base to the very mobile neck and always moving lower back. So how can we help when our mid spine gets too stiff. First we should test to see if our thoracic spine is indeed stiff. This can be done by sitting on chair or bed that allows our feet to dangle. Place a pillow between your knees and hug your shoulders. Now rotate completely to the right without arching or bending your back and make sure not to bend to the side either. Now do the same thing in the opposite direction. If you noticed any stiffness or difference in range from one side to the other, you likely are suffering from some loss of range of motion. The fix? Well you’re doing it right now, just keep slowly rotating one way to the other 20 times 3 times a day.
Now when it comes to the hips there is no shortage of stretches that could help and yogis love stretch this very stable joint in all directions. The truth is, if you’re in the majority, you like do a lot of sitting (which is killing you, ya know), and so the front of your hips are usually flexed. Thus the best stretch you can do is one that brings your leg into a more extended (straighter) position. The test for this one is a quick and dirty assessment (meaning, it probably won’t carry much weight on the results because it is not the proper way to REALLY assess this joint). You’re going to want to lie on the edge of your bed on a bit of an angle so that your ENTIRE leg is hanging off. Make sure your lower back is not curving off the bed. Do you feel a stretch? I bet you do! If not, have no fear, I will help you folk next 🙂 If you want to start stretching, let this leg hang off the bed for 30 seconds every day. Switch to the other side and do the same. If you didn’t feel that stretch, use a belt, towel, or strap to pull your knee back just a little bit… Now that is a stretch you won’t soon forget! This ends the first portion of my senior strong core series. Next, Strengthening that core!
Dr. Daniel Davids PT