A strong core eases back pain

Having back pain is the worst. You can’t do anything when your lower back hurts. Upper back pain is bad, too, but movement is usually at least possible. When your lower back hurts, you can’t walk comfortably. Forget about standing up when you’re sitting. And when you’re standing you can’t sit back down. And leaning over or bending is impossible. I speak from experience. Up until a few years ago I had sciatica pain that was unbearable for weeks at a time. The sciatica pain blended with the hip bursitis pain on occasion to create spasms of pain and breathlessness. I don’t like to think about that time. Then I read some studies that led me to work on my core. These studies indicated that having a strong core eases back pain. And in some cases prevents it entirely. Less pain means we can be happier every day.

Physical therapists agree

I still get newsletters from Athletico, where I did physical therapy for my knee a number of years ago. The latest newsletter (February 2024) highlights the correlation between a strong core and lessening back pain, in fact. “The goal of core stabilization exercises is to improve your abdominal strength and increase the stability in your lower back or lumbar spine, which can help alleviate aches and pains you’re currently experiencing.” So the key to easing back pain is not pain medication or even rest, it’s simple core exercises. This is great news for our healthy aging regimen.

The simplest core stabilization exercise

Renegade row - a great core stabilization exercise.

A simple core stabilization exercise is the plank, done on your forearms or the palms of your hands and your toes. Look straight ahead, tighten your core and keep your back in line. Don’t sink down or have a rounded back. If even a forearm plank is difficult for you, try an incline plank with your hands on a table, your kitchen counter or even a wall. As you get stronger, you can go lower. And you can add variations, like the “Renegade Row,” which challenges your core even more.

Other good core stabilization exercises include “Dead Bug,” which I talked about just a couple of weeks ago, and a simple pelvic tilt.

My goal, when I started working on my core, certainly was not to get a “six-pack.” I’ll be happy if no one else ever sees my abs. They’re strong and my back doesn’t hurt, and that’s all that matters to me. A strong core eases back pain for life. It doesn’t take long, if you’re consistent, and it’s certainly worth the few minutes to do the exercises most days.

You only need one thing to enter your happy place

As humans, we strive for certain things. First of those things is happiness. Being happy and optimistic helps us overcome minor problems and be more resilient. Who wants to be doom and gloom all the time, right? And yet so many of us are not happy. Sure, some things in all of our lives weigh us down. But there are lots of facets to each of us. And most of those facets can make us happy. It just takes one thing to enter your happy place. Now, my happy place is probably very different from yours. And your happy place is different from anyone else’s. All are equally happy to each of us. What’s that one thing we need? A mindset shift.

Exercise: from “no way” to “happy place?”

I’ve said it before, I don’t like to exercise. And yet I do it every day. How do I get from moping around and saying, “I have to go work out. I don’t want to do it. Why do I have to work out?” to “I get to work out now!” How? That one thing to get to my happy place is a shift in the story I tell myself. “In 45 minutes or so, I’ll be done. I can relax and take a nice warm shower. Then I can sit down and read for a few minutes.” Notice the fact that I don’t dwell on the workout itself, but on the reward. Once I get going, I don’t actually mind the workout. I can enjoy the music and the choreography. And I know that if the weights are really heavy, then I’m probably almost done. 

Except for running. I really do mind the running. And then I found something to make the running more enjoyable: audiobooks. I listen to a rollicking adventure while I’m on the treadmill and that takes my mind completely off of what I’m doing. I made something about running fun and that keeps me motivated during those workouts.

Gray winter ugly to aesthetically pleasing

This can work for other activities as well. That one thing to enter your happy place when you’re seeing gray, dirty snow on the ground in the depths of winter could be admiring the lines of the bare branches against the sky. Or enjoying how your dog romps through the stuff.

Treasure hunt!

And if you’re not a fan of organizing, but you’ve got a closet that you promised yourself you’d get to, then you need that mindshift, that one thing to enter your happy place. Tell yourself that you’re going on a treasure hunt in the closet. Because you never know what you’ll find there. You may find long-lost treasures to wear or even to sell. Schedule a few hours to do it. Yes, put it in your calendar. And get it done.

I’m no Pollyanna, but I’ve been working on putting a smile on my face every day. I’ve been exercising that mindshift to become happier, no matter what else is going on. It works for me, and discovering that one thing to enter your happy place will work for you, too.

Everyone’s getting into the balancing act

I’ve got to admire Al Roker. He’s looking great these days, and this month he’s focusing on improving his balance while he walks. In the clip on the Today show, he merely said he wanted to improve his balance, so that’s the focus of their February challenge. Stephanie Mansour, the fitness consultant for Today, has put together a month-long challenge for members of the show’s “Start TODAY” 100-day challenge that will combine balance, walking and core work. The show’s website provides a calendar that indicates the kind of work to do on any given day – walk, balance or core.

We use balance in everyday movements

Mansour emphasizes the importance of balance in overall stability because we use it for things we don’t even think of every day – like getting up from a chair or picking something up off the floor. With better balance, we don’t even think of movements like this. But if our balance is weak, then, for example, we’d think twice about picking that piece of paper up. And it would take at least twice as long to brace ourselves to get out of a chair. Mansour includes core work in this challenge because strong core muscles lead to stronger balance. Our core helps our posture, our breathing, and our ability to move.

We know that balance is crucial for our healthy aging. Without our working to maintain it, our balance erodes over time. But, we can do something about it. Al Roker recognizes this. We can work to improve our balance with simple exercises. The “Your Week of Core-Centered Balance Moves” Guide gives you some of the exercises that will help.

Some Balance Moves

The recommended exercises highlighted in the Facebook group Balance for Fitness, Balance for Life, are just that – recommendations. They’re not the only ones that will help to improve your balance. Mansour highlights other, probably more advanced, balance exercises. She includes the yoga “Tree” pose, Plank Shoulder Taps, and “Warrior III.” The Plank Shoulder Taps combines core and balance, where you tap alternating shoulders while you’re in Plank position. Warrior III is another balance move that’s quite challenging. There’s also a move that Mansour calls the “Balance Beam Walk,” that’s like Inline Walking, but balancing a book on your head. Again, it combines balance, walking and core.

More Core Moves

Of course Mansour highlights “Plank” as a good core strengthener. Others exercises in the Today challenge include “Bird Dog” (raising opposite arm and leg, alternating) and “Dead Bug” (Lying on your back with arms stretched up and legs lifted, bent at a 90-degree angle. Touch the opposite knee with your hand and go back to the original position.).

Get into the balancing act! You’ll work everything – and combine balance, walking and core.

Push-ups Work Everything

I’m really bad at push-ups. There. I said it. I’m weak, my elbows hurt when I try to go deep into a push-up, and I’m really bad at them. But I keep trying. Because I know that push-ups work everything. Experts not only recommend 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week, but also 2 days of strength training.

Strength training helps build muscle and also bones. We smallish women over a certain age can become fragile over time, and must do what we can to stay strong and vital, crucial for our healthy aging. Being strong means that we’ll be more resilient, too, able to face whatever life throws at us. And there’s nothing that builds and tests your strength more than push-ups.

Amber Harris, a certified strength coach, notes that including push-ups in our workouts helps us increase strength and muscle mass which we lose at a rate of 3 – 8 percent every decade over age 30. Push-ups also help us lift and push things, like boxes and doors. And, by working the core, push-ups also help us maintain good posture. But they’re hard.

Doesn’t something else work?

If you’re like me and don’t like to do push-ups, you’re thinking, can’t I do something else? And the answer is, of course. There are loads of exercises that build strength in your arms, your shoulders, your back, your core and your legs. Just not all at once. Push-ups work everything all at once, so it’s a really efficient exercise. Talk about multi-tasking. A few push-ups, even modified ones, pack more of a punch than an equal number of biceps curls, for example.

But I can’t do full push-ups

Me neither. Not many, anyway. Full push-ups, the ones where you’re on your toes, bending your elbows so your chest brushes the floor, are ridiculously hard. I can do maybe four of them. I know that if my goal is to do 25 full push-ups at some point, then I have to keep trying. For the rest, I modify.

Bianca Vesco, a NASM-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor, advocates modifying push-ups to meet you where you are so that you can build on them. You can start by doing standing push-ups, hands on the wall. Then progress to lower inclines, like your kitchen counter, a table, an ottoman, a step stool and then finally a full push-up on the floor. This progression gets steadily harder, but as you make your way through, your body will get stronger and you’ll succeed. For all of the modifications, though, remember to keep your neck straight, your core tight, your butt tucked and your back straight. Another progression, when you’re getting to the really hard ones, is to lower your body in the modified position, then when you’re as low as you can get, put your knees on the floor and reset to the starting position. This adjustment helps build the muscles you’ll need for the full push-up.

No matter where you are in your fitness journey, push-ups will help you build the strength you need. Because push-ups work everything.