Get Strong Challenge

Get Strong: Your Monthly Fitness Challenge Jan 2022

Last fall, I introduced my monthly fitness challenge, explaining my "inspiration" and why I think it's so important to do strength work ESPECIALLY as we age. (You can read all about that here.)


How are you doing?

By now, I hope you're having some success with my challenges. 

Keep up the good work.

Every day!

(And if you haven't started yet? Well. You can begin today!)

Get Strong

And add this one . . . 

Challenge #4 -- Identify your core, learn how to engage it, and . . . (ahem) do your Kegel exercises every day!

I can hear you groaning and see you rolling your eyes right through my computerI know. I know. Core work . . . is no fun. In fact, it’s downright unpleasant. But . . . developing a strong core is super important for us, and especially as we age.

I’m not talking about developing six-pack abs here (for me - and probably for most of you, too - that train left the station years ago). I’m talking about developing  strong core muscles to help us all move more confidently, stand taller, prevent injuries, and take some of the load off of our joints and spine. Because our core? It's the foundation for every move we make! 

I did Pilates for years and years, and every class my instructor (“Alabama Renae”) would tell us (in her best Alabama accent) . . . “Y’all. We do this so we can get ourselves up off the floor when we’re old women. None of y’all are going to say,’I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.’ Not on my watch.” 

And THAT’S why we care about our core: To get ourselves up off the floor when we’re old women.

So. What is our core anyway?
(Because it’s a lot more than that six-pack!)

Our core. . . comprises the deep muscles that help support our pelvis, spine, butt, back, hips and stomach. Basically it’s the foundational muscles for keeping our posture strong and tall, and for allowing us to twist, bend, run, jump and just move.

There are several main core muscles. These include:

  • Rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscles)
  • Transverse abdominis (the lower abs or the "seatbelt")
  • Inner and outer obliques (they're on your sides and help you twist side to side)
  • Multifidus (the deep muscles of your lower back)
  • Erector spinae (the muscles that run along your spine)
  • Diaphragm (the muscle at the bottom of your ribcage that supports breathing)
  • Pelvic floor muscles (the muscles low in your pelvis that help control continence and have a huge role in pregnancy and birth)

Pretty much . . . it’s everything you need to get yourself up off the floor should you find yourself down there. (So much more than just your abs.)

And how, exactly, do we engage our core?

A lot of people thing that "engaging your core" means "sucking in your stomach." But that's not it at all. In fact, it's kind of the opposite of that. Engaging your core means bracing and tightening all of the muscles in your core at the same time. When you do this, your entire mid-section should feel like a single, strong cylinder – which is way more than just “sucking in” your stomach. 

To engage your core, imagine that you are bracing yourself for a sucker-punch right to the stomach. You’re not going to suck in your stomach in that situation! You’re going to take a deep breath and tighten all of your abdominal muscles. My (pre-pandemic) personal trainer used to tell me to picture “zipping up” my abs – bringing my navel up and toward my spine.

Try it! Engage your core several times a day . . . just for fun. And especially before you do any kind of exercise – even just walking around the neighborhood.

What if you CAN’T engage your core? Could it be . . . weak?
Maybe. . . *

Here are some signs that may indicate a weak core:

  • How’s your posture? If it’s hard for you to stand or sit up straight, it might indicate a weak core, especially the erector spinae muscles.
  • Do your limbs feel weak? Maybe your knees ache? Like . . . do your legs tire easily when you go up and down stairs? Do your arms ache when you’re carrying the laundry? A lot of time, a weak core (which is the foundation for all of our movement) is not doing its share of the load, and you're feeling it in your limbs. Or your knees.
  • Can you hollow your stomach? Try it! Take a natural breath, and, as you exhale, pull your belly button toward your spine. Hold for a count of 10, then release. If you're unable to sustain the hold for the entire count, this is a good indicator that your core is weak.
  • Do you . . . dribble? (Yeah. You know what I’m talking about.) This could be an indicator of a weak pelvic floor. (And, trust me, none of us want a weak pelvic floor as we head into our . . . golden years.)

And . . . What about your pelvic floor?

Oh, yeah. That.

Like any muscle group, your pelvic floor requires routine exercise to stay strong and function properly. And for women, the pelvic floor serves a Very Important Function: it’s the sheet of muscle that supports the bladder, uterus, and bowel.

To keep your pelvic floor functioning properly (and to help with involuntary dribbles and such!), incorporate Kegels exercises into your daily routine. Once you figure out how to do them (follow this Mayo Clinic link for an excellent how-to description), you can do your Kegel exercises discreetly just about any time, whether you're sitting at your desk or relaxing on the couch – or as part of your daily meditation practice or even while you’re in the shower.

So. There you go! This month’s fitness challenge is simple - but important: Identify your core muscles, engage them . . . and do your Kegel exercises every day!


Previous Get Strong Challenges:

Challenge #3: Increase your physical activity every day.

Challenge #2: Stretch your hamstrings, activate those glutes . . . and spare your back just by changing the way you bend over.

Challenge #1: Strengthen Your Lower Body by Doing Body Weight Squats . . . All Day Long


*Interested in doing more to strengthen your core?

Try yoga! Yoga is a fabulous way to strengthen your core. (And there are many other benefits, as well.) Last year, I did a couple of in-depth posts about yoga. You can check them out here and here. If you're interested in trying yoga, I highly recommend Yoga With Adriene. (She's been my at-home yoga instructor since the pandemic shut down began in March 2020.) She's got a free "30-day yoga" thing going this month (click here) -- but y'know . . . you can start ANY day -- and you can take as long as you want to do the program. You don't need to 30 days in a row. (There are no "yoga police.")

Or practice this basic core workout for beginners! Not ready for yoga? Here's a 10-minute workout comprising 6 different core exercises. These are pretty "standard" moves that will help you strengthen your core (but only if you do them).

And if you have a Peloton membership . . . try the Crush Your Core program with Emma Lovewell. Take it from me . . . it's challenging! But it works.



Get Strong: It's Time for Another Fitness Challenge

Last month I introduced my monthly fitness challenge, explaining my "inspiration" and why I think it's so important to do strength work ESPECIALLY as we age. (You can read all about that here.)

How did you do?

I hope you've made a habit of doing simple body weight squats all day long, and that by now you're sitting and standing - hands free - with ease! (And if your answer is Not Yet . . . well. I encourage you to start today!)
Keep doing it!
Every day.

Get Strong

And add this . . . 

Challenge #2: Stretch your hamstrings, activate those glutes . . . and spare your back just by changing the way you bend over.

Okay. It turns out that most people in the US bend over in a way that is not "friendly" to our backs. (It's apparently a cultural thing.) Try this: Drop something on the floor. Now bend over to pick it up. 

Did you look down at the object . . . and then bend over at your waist to pick it up? That's how most people in the US move when they need to bend over and do . . . whatever. Pick something up off the floor. Pull a weed in the garden. Tie their shoe. Etc. But. . . bending over at the waist like that is not good for our lower backs! Bending at the waist puts our bodies into a "C" position (curving like the letter C), which puts stress on our spines.

There's a better - and more back-friendly - way to bend over. It's called a "table bend" - or a hip hinge. When we hinge at the hips (instead of at our waist), our backs can stay straight in a neutral position, which takes the pressue off our spines. The "work" in a table bend comes from our hip joints (which are designed for this kind of motion), and it gives our hamstrings and glutes a nice little workout besides.

Here is an interesting article from NPR explaining the "C" bend vs. the "table" bend -- with a great little video demo-ing the correct way to hinge at the hip when you pick something up off the floor.

As a regular practicer of yoga for many years, I have develped a very flexible spine. I'm able to bend forward at the waist comfortably, and my back is strong and supple. But when I started working with a personal trainer a few years ago, he had me switch to the hip hinge right away - for just everyday bending over and as a strong base for weight training. I've been doing it ever since. There's nothing wrong with the spinal flexion moves in yoga (in fact, they provide excellent benefits), but when it comes to everyday bending over, the hip hinge is the best option.

A strong, healthy back is key to easy (easier?) movement as we age. Besides sparing our backs, hip hinges help strengthen our core -- which helps reduce back pain, improves our balance, and allows us better flexion, extension, and rotation of our bodies. And . . . it just feels better.

So my challenge to you this month is . . . to watch the very quick video demo of the hip hinge (or "table" bend) that I linked above. And then . . . practice it every time you need to bend over. Like last month, you don't need to set aside a special workout time for this. You just need to . . . pick something up off the floor!

It won't take long for you to develop this new, bending over habit.
It feels good -- and it's easy.

Just think how much stronger your core and leg muscles are getting -- now that you're doing body weight squats every day (because you are, aren't you?) AND stretching your hamstrings and working your glutes . . . all while saving your back!

(Future You is feeling better every day.)


Get Strong: A Little Fitness Challenge

Back in the days before the pandemic, I used to blog quite a bit about fitness. Trying to make it . . . palatable for you. Hoping to entice you to . . . work at it. Not because we need to look a certain way (we don't) or fit into a smaller size of pants (unnecessary), but because, ultimately, I want us all to be strong, rather bad-assy old people.

I think we all should want this. If we think about it.

Five years before my mom passed away, she broke her ankle quite badly . . . and I was her caretaker. It was an eye-opening experience for me -- and it changed my entire approach to fitness. My mom was 75 when she fell off the counter stool in my kitchen and broke her ankle. She was active and in fairly good shape (or so I thought) at the time. She took care of her health and watched her diet. She went to Zumba Gold classes and swam laps at her local Senior Center a couple of times a week. She was active, enjoyed walking, and had little trouble keeping up with me when we were out and about. But that fall? It exposed the "cracks" in her "foundation!"

For a month after her surgery, she was not able to bear any weight on her injured ankle. None. Which meant . . . hopping (with or without a walker), crutches, or a wheelchair. Sadly, the wheelchair was her only option. Because she wasn't able to hop at all (her feet just . . . couldn't seem to leave the ground). She didn't have the arm strength to maneuver the walker. Or the crutches. She didn't have the core strength get into or out of a chair, the couch, her bed, or to use the bathroom by herself. It was shocking to me (and to her). How could this be??? How could my seemingly able mom . . . turn into a feeble old lady overnight???

What happened?
I'll tell you, my friends. It was . . . use it or lose it . . . in action!
And it's happening to each of us.

There are all kinds of studies out there explaining that our muscles melt away as we age. You know the drill . . . Our muscles begin to deteriorate in our 30s.  When we hit 40, we lose an average of 8% of our muscle mass every decade -- and this continues to accelerate even faster after age 60.  Loss of muscle limits mobility, speeds the onset of some diseases, and is linked to premature death. As we age, we need to focus on building and maintaining our strength. If we don't? Well . . . just think about what happened to my mom.


Here I am . . . trying to cajole you into caring about your strength.

I know how hard a sell this is. I know most of you just think I'm a pain in the ass. So this time, I'm going to make it a little more practical, more doable. I'm going to offer you a simple strength fitness challenge once a month. Something basic - but important - that you can do to (on the regular) (like every day) to build your strength. At home. Without a gym. Using no equipment. And without needing to schedule time for a "workout."


Let's begin!

Challenge #1: Strengthen Your Lower Body by Doing Body Weight Squats . . . All Day Long


Okay. So that's just a shocking headline to get your attention. But it is the intent of this challenge. And . . . it's actually surprisingly simple to DO body weight squats . . . all day long! Just take a seat (on the couch, in your chair, using the toilet) without using your hands to support you. Every time you sit. And then, rise from your seat (on the couch, in your chair, using the toilet) without using your hands to support you. 

If you do this, you're essentially doing body weight squats every time you sit and stand -- and it is a great strengthening exercise. Squats strengthen the muscles in our core and lower body -- our glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. It takes some core strength to sit yourself down and stand yourself up. And, trust me, you're going to need that core strength as you age. You're going to want those lower body muscles to continue to support you -- and especially as you get older. (These muscles also help us with our balance, but we'll talk more about that in a future challenge.)

So give it a try. Whenever it's time to sit or stand today, cross your arms over your chest and force yourself to get up or down without pushing or pulling on anything to do it. When you sit, don't allow yourself to "fall back" onto the chair . . . really think about controlling your body as you sit. Then plant your feet and rise up back up to a standing position. (I mean . . . you've got to get up or down, so why not turn it into an opportunity to build your strength?) If you can't do it, don't give up. Keep practicing! With repetition, you'll develop the strength to be able to do it. And if it's easy for you, that's great! Keep doing it!

Squats all day.
Every day.
(Who knew?)
(Future-You will be so grateful.)