As we age, we tend to move less and get stiff, which can put us at risk for falls. Stiffness and the fear of a potential fall can also create a downward cycle of exercising less because physical activity may be uncomfortable and intimidating.
So it is important to make a conscious effort to move more and to do it well. And if you already feel disconnected from your body, there are professionals who can help.
In the meantime, here are some simple things you can do to maintain a healthy range of motion in your joints as well as forge a stronger connection with your body.
Remember, these are just general exercises. It is important to be assessed by a professional and learn exercises that are specifically designed to improve your ability to move.
Quadruped Hip Rocking
This exercise uses developmental motor pathways in the brain. These are the same neurological pathways you used to learn to crawl, get up off the floor, and walk.
Quadruped hip rocking also helps to maintain proper flexion in your hips. Many people lack proper hip mobility and often flex at the lower back rather than hinging at the hip for any bending or reaching movement.
You can re-teach your body to stabilize the low back. This is important because it is the basis for many movements you do every day like sitting down in a chair or picking up an object from the ground.
Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, uses this exercise to assess whether someone is ready to perform a squat or dead lift with weight. You do not want to place extra weight on an unstable spine.
Begin on all fours with your joints stacked (wrists under shoulders and knees under hips.) Your lower spine should keep its natural curve; your hip bones should be level with each other; and your ribs should be down so you don’t arch your midback (this is your neutral spine). You can open your legs wider if you have a hard time maintaining a neutral spine.
- Press strongly away from the floor so your scapula remain stable on your spine.
- Rock back and pay attention to the front “crease” of the hip joint, this is your fulcrum, not your lower spine, which should maintain its natural curve.
- If you have any movement in the lower back and pelvic area, you’ve gone too far or lost your ability to stabilize your spine.
- The idea is to get as much range of motion in the hips as possible without moving your spine.
This exercise is good for reflexive trunk stability (your ability to react quickly in an unstable situation). This is especially important for those at risk of falling. This exercise is a good way to regain stability as your feet are mostly taken out of the equation, and you can focus on your core and breathing.
This exercise will also bring out any asymmetries in your left and right sides, so if one side is harder to balance on than the other, practice this weak link. Your motor control center will have a chance to re-learn this movement if you relax and breathe.
- Begin by kneeling with one knee down. Make sure your shoulders are over your hips, and hips are over the knee, so your trunk is in one straight line. The leg in front is bent 90 degrees at the hip and knee.
- All you need to do here is not fall over.
- If you feel unsafe, do this next to a stable object you can hold on to. If this feels too easy, narrow your stance by bringing your front foot in line with the back knee.
- To make this exercise more challenging, you can try closing your eyes.
Narrow Stance Balance and Tightrope Walk
This is the same pattern as half-kneeling, but now you are upright. Here again, a narrow stance is more challenging as you have a smaller base of support.
With this exercise, you can can also see any asymmetries between sides and whether you prefer to have your weight on one leg more than the other.
When walking the tightrope, you create an unstable situation such that you may feel as though you will fall, so you can use this opportunity to practice catching yourself. Always improve the weak links so you can move without compensations like holding your breath, lifting your shoulders, or gripping your toes.
- Stand tall with one foot directly in front of the other. If this is too challenging, widen your base a bit or stand near a stable object. You can also put your arms out to the sides to help you balance.
- Once you find your balance, start to walk in one straight line.
The feet are highly sensory and have a feedback loop with the brain. Our feet can become quite immobile as a result of trying to provide stability when something up in the core is not working well and wearing shoes like high heels or rigid dress shoes. Our feet connect us with the earth and help orient us in space. Whenever possible, go barefoot.
This exercise will strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the feet and help maintain mobility of the toes.
- Place one or both feet on a towel.
- Spread your toes and grab the towel with them.
- Then try to pull the towel toward you with your toes until it is all bunched up.
Hand in Fist
Surprisingly, grip is a function many people lose despite the intuitive knowledge of how important it is to be able pick something up and hold it. To remain independent, you need to maintain grip.
Making a tight fist will also reflexively activate the muscles of the shoulder.
- Spread your fingers wide.
- Then, one finger at a time, starting with the thumb, make a fist and then squeeze.
- Then open the hand again one finger at a time starting with the thumb.
- Try starting with the pinky as well.
Upper Back Extension
As a result of sitting for long hours, many of us end up stooped over. This occurs in the upper back (thoracic spine) and an excessive hunch is called kyphosis. This can affect the function of the shoulders such that we can lose ability to fully reach overhead.
Excessive kyphosis can also affect breathing since the diaphragm and heart cannot function properly.
- Sit up tall against a chair. The chair should hit right under your shoulder blades.
- Look up and send your eyes, neck, and upper back in an arch backward, make sure you do not break at the neck or lower back.
- Hold and breathe for several seconds and then return upright and repeat.
Stepping Agility and Balance
Falls can occur because we misjudge our step, trip on an object like a stair, or slip. This exercise will teach you to pick your feet up and improve proprioception, which is the body’s ability to judge where it is in space.
- Place objects like several yoga blocks (or any small but safe objects) in a line to set up an obstacle course.
- Play around with the distance between the blocks if you are using more than one because this will force you to adapt to different situations.
- You may need to take a large step or a small one depending on the distance. Again, if you are concerned about falling, perform the exercise near a stable object for support.
- With the one block, you can practice stepping over with one foot and then reversing the step to the starting position, while making sure not to knock it over.
- Make sure to pick the working leg up as high as possible. If you are using several blocks, walk forward stepping over each one. You can try this going backward and sideways as well.
Ashley Whitson is an ACE-certified personal trainer, Pilates-certified instructor, pre- and postnatal exercise specialist, Functional Movement Systems professional, Neurokinetic Therapy practitioner, and professional dancer in New York. For more information, see AshleyWhitsonPersonalTrainerNYC.com