No matter how much you walk, work your core and lift weights, you might not be doing enough to avoid some of the issues we can start to experience as we age – issues like hunched shoulders, shuffling feet and weak hands.
Working large muscle groups and performing cardiorespiratory exercise doesn’t get at the small muscles we need for performing everyday activities. As a fitness instructor who works with seniors, I find that in general there’s a lot of emphasis on walking and lifting weights, while very little attention is paid to functional stretches and exercise.
Five neglected body parts in particular are crucial to how happily and safely we age: the neck, the shoulders, the shins, the hands and the hips. They’re all easy to work on. So, along with your regular fitness routine, try some simple stretches and strength moves to keep your whole body fit and functioning well.
Seniors hunch over for many reasons, among them osteoporosis or arthritis. Sometimes, though, it’s simply because of a combination of strong pectoral (chest) muscles and weak rhomboids (the muscles in between the shoulder blades). This imbalance pulls the shoulders forward in a hunch, also called “pronation,” which in turn shortens the muscles connecting the pectorals to the shoulder joint. How to avoid or correct it? Try two things: strengthen the rhomboids – the muscles primarily responsible for good posture – and stretch those connecting muscles.
Strengthen your rhomboids
Stretch the connecting muscles
Most people will experience low back pain in their lifetime. Sometimes this problem is serious and needs medical attention, while at other times the problem is simply tight hip flexors. Your hip flexor muscles are a group that keep your leg in the hip joint, among other functions. The largest one, the psoas, attaches to the lowest vertebrae and low back muscles on the opposite side (right psoas attaches to left low back muscles, and vice versa). So if the psoas is tight, it pulls on the lower back, causing pain. Tight hip flexors can also result in poor posture by tilting the pelvis back, forcing the upper body to lean forward. If you are exercising often, your hip flexors need extra attention. Do this stretch a couple of times a day if you have back pain, or just once a day for maintenance.
Do hip flexor stretches the right way
As we age, driving becomes more dangerous due to weakening eyesight and slower reaction times. But there’s another reason that most of us fail to factor in: decreased neck mobility. Over time, our joints become less flexible due to bone thinning and cartilage loss, making turning the head more difficult. Even walking along a busy sidewalk requires looking to your right and left. Follow these neck stretches to keep your joints moving smoothly.
Try these neck stretches
Once you start to sense that you’re not picking up your feet the way you used to, you know your body is aging. Shuffling the feet is a health hazard – shuffling makes you more likely to trip and fall. Exercising your shins can help you stop the shuffle from developing down the road. We mostly focus on the large muscles of the legs when we work out (e.g.: glutes, quads and hamstrings) and neglect the small muscles, like the tibialis anterior. This muscle is located at the front exterior of the shin and makes possible what’s known as “dorsiflexion of the ankle,” or lifting the toes up toward the leg. When you’re walking, this action clears your toes as you swing your leg and encourages you to put your heel down first. Keep this muscle strong and flexible to balance out the calf, and you’ll be able to walk with confidence.
Strengthen your tibialis anterior
Is it getting hard to open pickle jars? That’s not the only problem you’ll run into if you lack hand and forearm strength. Turning door handles, using a can opener and holding a toothbrush require strength in the upper extremities. You might think you can just squeeze a squishy ball and have it covered – but that only strengthens the muscles on the underside of the forearm. You need to keep the top of the hand and forearm strong as well. This video by Dr. George Best shares a great exercise for this area at 5:16 minutes; he feels most of us have great grip strength already, but if you want to improve that too, watch the good grip exercises he shares in the first five minutes.
Strengthen your hand and forearm
Note: As with any new exercise, take care, and talk to your doctor first if you have medical issues.
Note: The Senior Planet Center at 127 W 25th Street in New York City is once again hosting a series of Feldenkrais Method classes featuring various chair exercises. This session will focus on helping you regain the natural flexibility of your arms and back and help you to increase your comfort when turning. Feldenkrais will be offered every other Friday as part of our Fit Friday series – join us on Friday the 13th from 2:30pm-3:30pm.
RSVP required. Email [email protected] or call 646-590-0615.