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.

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.

Instead of punching something, do this instead

Mondays for me are frequently busy, tending to orders, customer requests, a too-full inbox and dogs zooming around like crazy things. This last Monday was all that and more. Not only were there customer requests, there were also customer complaints, website links not working, and a learning curve on a new mailing program that had me stymied. To say it was frustrating is an understatement. It’s impossible to be productive when we’re under major stress, and we know that stress can compromise our immune system. So, instead of punching something to release my frustration, I took a walk.

Instead of punching something, get physical

Use exercise to release stress instead of punching something

Releasing energy with physical activity is a great way to deal with frustration. I didn’t have time for an intense workout, but I could clear my head with a walk around the block. It was not a long walk, as the temperature was well below freezing and somewhat icy, and even bundled up it was still chilly. So my walk didn’t last long, but I burned a few calories and released some frustration. When I returned to my desk, my head was clearer and I was able to solve a couple of problems.

Exercise helps you handle other stress better

In fact, it’s been found that exercise helps to prevent anger. In a study done a few years ago, people who exercised were “less prone to anger and aggressive tendencies.” One theory as to why this may occur is that while we exercise, we put our bodies under prolonged beneficial stress. After exercise, our bodies are more able to handle other stresses.

Another possibility is that when you’re exercising, you’re putting the stressor on a back burner. You’re not thinking about the thing that got you angry in the first place, and stepping away for a while can help you put it in better perspective. So instead of punching something, you’re stepping away from it.

Replace stress with calm

And Harvard Health Publishing advocates certain autoregulating exercise techniques to help “replace the spiral of stress with a cycle of repose.” These techniques include breathing exercises which are similar to forms of meditation. Practicing progressive muscular relaxation  (tightening and releasing sequential muscle groups) works too, but takes longer to learn.

So instead of punching something when you’re angry or frustrated, try one of these techniques. You may be happier afterward, and your family definitely will be.

Why can’t I do the same workout every day

The first step in beginning a fitness regimen is finding an exercise program that you like. I’ve said that a lot. Because if you don’t like it, you won’t do it. Simple as that. If you have a program that gets you on your feet, gets you moving, and you actually look forward to it, then why in the world wouldn’t you do it every day? You’ve got built-in motivation, so get to it, right? Now you’re saying that’s a bad idea? Why can’t I do the same workout every day? Here are some answers, prompted by personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist Rachel Trotta with my own comments thrown in. And my own article about cross-training may have some ideas for you, too.

First, remember to recover

Our bodies need time to recover. When we work our muscles intensely, they need time to recover and get stronger. So if you love to run and want to run everyday (I don’t understand this, but I know many people do), try to find something else that you love for alternating days. If you emphasize strength workouts, try to work different parts of your body every other day. 

But if, like the series that I like, your workout program actually does target different areas of your body on different days, you may not need to do a different program. If you’ve found an instructor that you really like, that’s terrific. Try to find different programs that target different areas to mix up your workouts.

The dreaded plateau

If you do the same workout every day, your body gets used to the movements and you’ll hit a plateau. Your body is great at adapting, but that’s not what you want when you exercise. In order to get stronger, or leaner, or improve our cardio response, we need to keep progressing in our workouts. Lift a little more, or do more difficult moves.

The boredom factor

Why can't I do the same workout every day?

No matter how much you like a workout program at the beginning, if you repeat it too much, you will get bored and you’ll lose your motivation. It’s the same thing with your favorite foods. Eat the same thing every single day and you’ll get bored with it and look for something new and exciting. I think that’s one reason we find it hard to stick to a restrictive eating plan. If you stick with it, you’re bound to lose weight, for example, but we want variety. Same thing with our workouts. If we do the same workout every day, we’ll get sick of it.

Over-exercise may result

And doing the same workout every day may result in over-exercise. Over-doing a move may result in injury. Or, if you’re merely going through the moves without focusing on them, you won’t get the full benefit.

So what’s the solution?

If I can’t do the same workout every day, what do I do? As I said before, if you’re streaming workouts and have found an instructor you really like, look for other programs that they do. While you’re enjoying that instructor’s workouts, also look for other programs you think you might enjoy and try them out. Also, try something totally different. You might like that too.

Fill up your sleep balloon

I heard an interesting story on the radio as I was driving to various errands the other day. We’re all feeling a little discombobulated right now because we’re not getting the proper sleep. At the holidays we enjoy get-togethers with friends and family, which is great, but we tend to lose sleep, eat more unhealthy foods and drink more alcoholic beverages than usual. We also tend to sit around more and not be as active as we should be. And now we’re feeling the consequences of not getting the proper sleep. So we need to fill up our sleep balloon.

Sleep balloon? Sounds weird

Joanna Kippax, a Sleep Hygienist, has floated the idea of a sleep balloon being the key to getting a good night’s sleep. Kippax noted in her work with kids diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder that many symptoms were alleviated once proper sleep habits were put into place. 

So how do you fill up your sleep balloon?

Picture this: you wake up and your sleep balloon is all deflated. So you wake up and open your shades to the morning sun. You’ve started already! Soaking in some daylight is a key component of getting a good night’s sleep. 

Fill your day with social interaction and activity. Meet with friends. But also get in your exercise. Exercise is crucial to our sleep health. And even if you had a bad night, don’t take it easy the next day. Follow your usual routine. Get the exercise you need. And don’t be tempted to take a nap. That will just make it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep the following day.

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Routine is key. We’re creatures of habit, and a regular sleep routine is a very healthy habit to have.

Got a full sleep balloon? Go to sleep

If you’ve done all the right things and you’re exhausted at your regular bed time, then it’s time to go to sleep. To fill up your sleep balloon is a key to healthy aging. You’ve recognized the importance of a good night’s sleep and, therefore, prioritized it. You’re on the way to more happiness and resilience. With good sleep, you’ll be able to handle life’s stresses.

What can you get done?

What can you get done in 15 minutes? A whole lot, as it turns out. My sister and I cleaned out 3 generations of stuff from our house in 15 minutes. Not all at once, but in 15 minute chunks. Not only my parents’ stuff, and my sister’s and my stuff, but my grandparents’ stuff too. Every corner of the house was filled with stuff.

Hoarders with 3 generations-worth of stuff

We had moved my grandmother into a nursing home and she shipped everything to us. My sister and I inherited our family home and we were not interested in moving. So we had to go through everything. A daunting task. The show “Hoarders” wasn’t on the air when we did this, but our house could probably have been featured. It’s not pristine now, but it’s no longer even close to a hoarder’s abode any longer. And we did it in 15 minutes at a time.

We tackled the job just like that – a job. We knew that if we tried to do a bigger part, like a whole room at a time, we’d never finish. But we set a timer and got busy. Sorting the stuff, 15 minutes at a time. Keep, toss, donate. Keep, toss, donate. Just that simple. It was our job for those 15 minutes every day.

What can you get done?

What can you get done in 15 minutes? A half hour? An hour? Anyone can do anything they set their mind to. Anything. I’m a firm believer. I write about goals and discipline all the time. Because that’s what it takes to get things done.

The problem is that many people don’t consider their personal goals the same way that they do their work or career goals. And that’s why they don’t achieve things that are important to their personal lives.

Personal goals = work goals

Renegade row - one of the killer moves in Saturday's workout

One productivity expert, in fact, proposes that we should view our personal goals exactly like our work goals. Use the same tools at home as we do in the office. For example, at the office we plan the day’s work to achieve the goals we set. It should be the same thing at home – but just if you want to achieve life goals too. (Just kidding, of course you do!) So, use your planner – or get one for your personal life. I created the Fitness Journal and Tracker for every part of what you want to get done. It’s much more than just for exercise. Track that, of course, as well as your diet, your water, your sleep, and anything else you want to keep track of. 

Figure out a plan to get it done

Create goals for yourself and write them down in your Journal. High-flying, big, pie-in-the-sky goals. And figure out a plan to get them done. Above all, be specific – that’s the key to achieving big goals. If you know you want to achieve a lot, but don’t know how to start recognizing goals, download the Get It Done Guide. Use the worksheet. That’ll help. You’ll increase your resilience, your happiness, and, not only that, you’ll improve your mindset. So, what can you get done? A whole lot. Get to it. Start now.

Eat more protein

We all want to live a life that’s long and healthy. And part of our healthy aging is making sure we get the right nutrition. Boring, I know. But with a little forethought we can plan our meals and snacks so that they’re fun, tasty and nutritious. Even with that planning, though, it’s common to not get enough protein. Highest on the list of protein-rich foods are meats and yogurt. But many seniors skip the meat, perhaps because of budgetary or other concerns. But the fact is, protein will help us keep up our energy. And we need to eat more protein.

Why we need to eat more protein

The “formal” government recommendation for protein is the same for all adults age 19 and up, but recent research has shown that we older folks probably need more. We know that as we age our muscle mass declines – by up to half. And, as we age, we have more chronic ailments, many of which affect our ability to process the protein we eat efficiently. Why do we need protein? Simply put, protein can help us build and maintain muscle mass. And it also replaces the proteins that chronic systemic inflammation depletes.

We need a LOT or protein

According to the official recommendation, we need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 kg is about 2.2 pounds). I did the math, and I need about 45 grams of protein every day. That’s a lot of meat. But other foods have plenty of protein as well. Plan your meals and snacks with protein in mind. Breakfast is a perfect time for an egg. And hard boiled eggs are also great snacks.

More high-protein snack ideas

If you’re feeling hungry in the afternoon (for me, about a half hour before my workout), have some almonds or pistachios. They’re high in protein, and they taste good. Greek yogurt is also high in protein. Something I don’t often think of as a great snack is jerky – but it’s tasty and full of protein. Dry roasted edamame beans is another possibility. Another great snack is an apple or stick of celery with a bit of peanut butter.

When doing some reading, I found a recipe for roasted chickpeas that sounds amazing. For a main dish, try lentil soup.

The point here is, if we need to eat more protein, we’re not limited to roasting a chicken or broiling a steak. Sure, those are great, but we thrive on even more choices. And there are plenty of protein choices.

Tighten your core for everything

My balance group people are probably sick and tired of me telling them to “tighten your core.” But the core is the center of, pretty much, everything. Your core holds you up, helps you breathe, saves your back and saves you from falling. Strengthening your core also helps to improve your balance. Back to the core of it all – your core.

What is your core?

In a nutshell, your core includes all the stabilizing muscles in your middle – front and back. Your transverse abdominis is deepest and wraps around your middle like a girdle. It connects your rib cage to your pelvis and holds everything in place. Your internal and external obliques are next out toward the surface. These muscles criss-cross your middle and help with twisting and bending. Closest to the surface is the rectus abdominis – your six-pack – which also helps with bending and pelvic control. So, literally, your core really is the center of everything.

What will a strong core do for me?

You’re probably slumping in your chair. Straighten up! See that – you engaged your core! When you tighten your core, you’re able to sit or stand more upright. And when you’re upright, you can breathe more fully, get more oxygen into your lungs, and into your bloodstream.

Got a bad back?

I had back pain fairly regularly after a fall I took a few years ago. While I was healing I had time to do some research and found that improving your balance helps to prevent falls. My research also indicated that a strong core helps improve balance, and it also helps to prevent lower back pain. (This is from a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science.) Core strength training helps alleviate low back pain. This is crucial for our healthy aging. Nothing ages us more than pain, and many older people complain of back pain.

Tighten your core for better quality of life

Imagine a life without back pain. A life with free breath and limitless movement. This is the potential you can have when you tighten your core. 

How do you tighten your core? Suck it in. That’s easiest. Feel your stomach pull in. This is easiest when you’re lying on your back on the floor. Put your hand on your abdomen and tighten. Now stand up and do the same thing. Now, download your Week of Core-Centered Balance Moves and do an exercise a day. That’s a great start to strengthening your core.

Gratitude is not just for Thanksgiving

The power of gratitude

Here in the US yesterday was Thanksgiving. A day that traditionally is spent with friends and family, eating lots of food, then lying practically comatose on the couch watching football. The last few years many have truly embraced the “thanks” part of the holiday, and that’s a wonderful thing. The power of gratitude is broad, creating physical and mental well-being.

Gratitude for resilience, healthy aging and happiness

The act of being grateful can go far in promoting healthy aging, happiness and optimism, but only if it’s more than one day a year. 

Every day I make a point of specifically stating things I’m grateful for. Some days it’s really easy, when all my chores are done and the dogs have been behaving themselves. On harder days, though, it’s more difficult. But those days are the days when even the smallest thing means the most. When the dogs have gotten into the garbage, when business has not been the best, when things break – those are the days that I need to list specific things I’m grateful for.

Things I’m grateful for

Like if my sick old dog hasn’t thrown up that day, then I have another quality day with him. When my sister and I have a productive discussion, our relationship has grown stronger. And the headache that’s been plaguing me for the better part of a week goes away. Sweet relief! 

Gratitude gives me warmth

Those are the times that my gratitude fills me with warmth. And that feeling makes me want to spread that warmth to others, so that they can feel what I’m feeling. That’s the power of gratitude. Then I feel able to take on the world. That anything is possible. Even on bad days.

When that power of gratitude fills me, it’s easy to resist my natural inclination to just sit and scroll through my news feed. I actually want to write a chapter in my book or an article. I’ll happily do the research, even though that’s not my favorite thing. Or I’ll pick up that cleaning rag and tackle a spot I happen to see, rather than just letting it sit – and with four dogs there are plenty of spots.

Gratitude can bring people together

When I’m feeling grateful, I want to bring others into my life, rather than caving to my natural hermit tendency. And being more social also tends to increase our happiness and optimism. It’s been proven that practicing gratitude actually makes people happier. In one study, people wrote and delivered thank you notes, and their happiness was subsequently measured. It turns out that this simple act increased people’s happiness for a month. Think what daily expressions of gratitude can do! Not all gratitude needs to be expressed publicly, though. Writing in a gratitude journal works too. 

So, find that little thing you’re thankful for. Be grateful for breathing, for feeling the breeze, for the beauty of bare branches. Those little things can bring much bigger ones. If we only let it, the power of gratitude can make every aspect of our lives better. 

The 3 Keys to Healthy Aging

I have an irrational distaste for going to the doctor. Of course, if I really have to go, then I will. (I’m not like my grandmother who absolutely loved going to her doctor’s appointments and all the attention she got there.) So I do everything I can for my healthy aging. It turns out that there are 3 keys to healthy aging that all work together.

Diet is first

The first of the keys to healthy aging is diet. Your nutrition, what you eat, affects everything you do. Your diet affects your brains, your bones, and muscles. Eating a healthy diet has been shown to reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, among other health concerns. It also affects your mental health. Eating well can lessen your likelihood of developing depression or anxiety. If you eat a healthy diet, you’re more likely to keep to an exercise plan. And you’ll sleep better. What you eat can determine the amount and quality of your sleep.

Number 2: Exercise

Exercise is the second key to healthy aging. The benefits gained from exercise are for every age. From lower blood pressure to stronger bones to better mental clarity, exercise is essential. And every type of exercise can help to improve your sleep. Of course, exercising closer to bedtime could make it more difficult to fall asleep. I always have more energy after I exercise, so I don’t even try to take a nap after a workout.

Sleep is Last But Not Least

And sleep is the third key. Sleep gives your body and your brain time to recover from the day’s exertions. Without proper quality sleep, you have a higher risk of certain conditions like stroke, heart disease and diabetes. When you get enough sleep, you have better energy for all the activities you love doing during the day. 

They all work together. The 3 keys to healthy aging make you more resilient and able to tackle everything life throws at you. Sleep and a good diet gives you the energy to exercise. Exercise and sleep help you make good choices, both in your diet and in the rest of your life. And, of course, diet and exercise keep you healthy and happy.