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Do These To Walk Stronger And Live Longer
As we age, falling is one of the major causes of reduced lifespan, because of the terrible consequences of broken bones and broken spirits.
You may have had the distressing experience of witnessing a healthy older relative who fell, became inactive, and quickly deteriorated. That is why exercising - for all of strength, endurance and balance - is a key to living longer better.
The question is this: if you wish to focus specifically on more competent walking, which exercises and muscle groups should you give most attention?
I have an answer, based upon several related research studies.
Personally, I don’t focus on these specific exercises as I run 5km every day and I do kettlebells and bodyweight exercises regularly as well.
Here is what research tells us is most important
When researchers compared older people who had fallen at least once, with those that had not fallen, they found they the fallers had to use a lot more effort just to walk - up to 47% more. By using that extra energy, the fallers had little in reserve to counter imbalance or instability and thus were more likely to fall - again.
Other research compared the effort needed by old and younger women just to walk - the demand walking placed on their muscular system via the actions of their joints.
Younger women used 65% of their maximum strength to walk, and for the same joint actions and speed older women used 90% of their strength. That's 38% more effort than the younger women. Older women have almost no reserve of energy to direct to reacting and recovering from a trip or stagger, thus raising the risk of falling.
In another study, the reaction time for the tibialis anterior, and knee extension strength, were strongly associated with the likelihood of falling. These muscles need to be strengthened to reduce this risk.
Another recent study (2019) found that people who had fallen focused more on their internal muscular coordination when walking than those that had not fallen. That makes sense right, you would become wary. But unfortunately, the research found that by doing that - by changing their behaviour to allocate attention internally - they made themselves more likely to fall.
They found that such internal focus served to compromise movement efficiency in older adults with a history of falls. And, potentially, lessened their ability to react efficiently to changing environments experienced in daily life i.e. trip.
What do all these studies have in common?
The studies, taken as a whole, give us two vital insights to help us live longer better:
The common thread is the muscles. We need to maintain our "walking muscles" and build both strength and endurance in those muscles. This will stop us from falling.
By not falling we will avoid potentially reducing our lifespan by five years. Even if we fall and does not lead to a rapid deterioration in our health, the fall will substantially diminish our quality of life. Thus, exercising now to retain or rebuild your walking muscles will help you live longer better.
What are the essential muscles to strength?
The key muscles which are identified in these various studies as being essential for balance, and walking are:
You don’t need to know what all these muscles are or how they are attached - we just need to exercise those groups regularly. Here are the exercises you need (and these are ones I do after running and sometimes quickly before walking).
1. Knee extensor exercises
Knee extension exercises are commonly used after knee surgery or replacement. A handy by-product of improving your knee extension strength is often pain relief in the knees.
Here is a good set, including glute bridges, on Youtube at Ask Doctor Jo. These knee strengthening exercises don't require using a lot of weights.
Don’t use gym machines for your knee extensor exercises (unless you are in rehabilitation). The whole point of this post is about standing on your own two feet and using all your muscles as a team - connected to your brain.
Using gym machines does the opposite. It switches off your brain and shuts down your teams of coordinating muscles, thus ruining your balance and making you more likely to fall.
2. Glute muscles - activating your glutes
Strengthening your glutes plays a significant role in keeping the hips and pelvis aligned. This keeps you balanced and helps reduce joint pains in your knees.
Lunge slowly, and with controlled movements. This places less stress on your joints.
Most people find back lunges are less challenging than front lunges. When you get better, do front, back and side as one sequence. Do ten on each side.
Stand in front of a step. Step on the step with your right foot, followed by your left foot. Step back down with your left foot, followed by your right foot. That's one rep, do 20 reps.
You can do step-ups with or without weight, and vary the size of your step or box to make the exercise easier or harder. For the most intensity, you can do a dynamic step-up by jumping onto your step.
Side Plank with hip abduction
From a side plank position, lift your top leg. You can perform the plank with your lower (supporting) leg straight, or bent with your knee on the ground. Your supporting arm can be either on your elbow or palm (or use an exercise ball for even more of a challenge).
Side-lying hip abduction
Similar to the side plank, but less intense.
Start by lying on your side, with your bottom leg bent (your knee should be at about a 90-degree angle). Hold your top leg straight, with foot flexed. Lift your top leg, keeping it straight without locking the knee. Lower more slowly to a count of 4 - that's one rep. Do 20 to 50 reps each side.
You are sure to feel this one, even though it seems so innocent.
3. Hip flexor exercises
If you are standing, the hip flexors lift your leg when you step up on a stool. If you are lying flat on your back, the hip flexors can either lift your leg or lift your torso into a sit-up. There are various hip flexor muscles that all work to enable a person to be mobile, including the psoas muscles.
Runners with weak hip flexors run with a more upright trunk posture. This upright posture is associated with an overreliance on the knee extensors during running and contributes to overuse injuries at the knee. All the more reason to strengthen your hip flexors if you are a runner.
These "top three exercises to build strong hip flexors" from a physiotherapist are convenient and require no equipment. You can easily do them each morning.
Squats are another good exercise for hip flexors, and many other associated muscles. Squats have an added advantage of being very flexible, meaning that you adjust the intensity to fit fitness. Get much better results by going slow during the lowering phase - count to 5 seconds on the way down.
Start in a standing position with feet slightly spread apart and arms to the side, bend your knees and push the buttocks toward the back, then drop down until your legs are roughly parallel to the floor, keeping knees in line with the feet. Keep your arms up - at chest level. Repeat 10 to 30 times depending on your fitness level.
4. Lower internal obliques
The obliques are actually two muscles: internal obliques and external obliques. They are located on the sides of the abdominals (six-pack muscles) running from the hips to the rib cage.
The internal obliques are located just underneath the external obliques. For all intents and purposes, you can think of the Internal obliques and external obliques as a single muscle. (sportsrec.com)
The obliques are commonly said to facilitate bending and twisting. That's why so many twisting exercises are recommended to strengthen them e.g. the Russian Med Ball Twist.
But in fact, they don't actually do much to twist our torso, rather, they resist movement to prevent the lumbar spine (lower back) from moving too much. This helps transfer the power you produce with your legs and hips to your upper body during sports skills like swinging a baseball bat.
It is for this reason that it is best to avoid the common twisting exercises that are recommended. The top CrossFit athletes have ripped obliques (and abs), but they don't do any rotation or side bending. (stack.com)
Side Bends (lateral flexion) and Med Ball Russian Twists (rotation) are certainly popular. They won't cause much of a problem for a healthy person in the short term, but they add wear and tear over time. (stack.com) If you are older, then you are best to avoid those types of exercises.
Do these instead.
This video shows three good Bird Dog variations.
Start on your side with your feet stacked on top of each other and your bottom forearm directly below your shoulder.
Hold for 30 seconds, change sides.
Side Plank Dips
Start in a side plank.
Drop your hips toward the floor and raise back to starting position or a little higher if you can - for 10 reps each side.
Single-arm Overhead Press
Grab a light dumbbell with one hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your glutes and brace your core like you're about to be punched in the gut and press the dumbbell overhead. Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
Perform 5 to 20 reps on one side, switch hands and repeat.
Choose your favs
Choose from among the exercises for your knee extensions, glutes, hip flexors and obliques and build them into a routine. You can do just one from each group daily, or do a few from each group on different days of the week.
This is for sure. If you do these exercises and build up your "walking muscles" then you will have less chance of tripping and falling.
If you do them consistently, you may even be able to make your daughter work hard to keep up with you .
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Since I was diagnosed at 50 with Type 2 diabetes I've been learning how to do bone-building fitness training which lowers my age. You can too. It's your choice. Walter