I know you’re constantly hearing about the benefits of exercise—how it improves cardiovascular function, increases your metabolic function, reduces body fat, builds bones, and improves mood. But there’s a more subtle benefit that’s often overlooked.
The right kinds of exercise strengthen “stabilizer” muscles—various muscles throughout the body that allow you to perform simple movements with more ease. The ability to perform these movements has been found to be a strong predictor of mortality. Research indicates that people who are better at simple physical tasks, such as gripping, walking, rising from a chair, and balancing on one leg, are more likely to live longer.
There’s a saying about the human body: “Use it or lose it.” When we’re younger, this doesn’t seem to be an issue. But as we age, we develop routines and habits that over time can rob us of our ability to perform even the most simple of tasks.
When I was growing up, we would play baseball one week, then shoot hoops the next. In between, we’d ride bikes, skateboard, run, and swim. The wide variety of activities developed different muscle groups and improved neurological pathways. Without even trying, children naturally were the ultimate cross-trainers.
Nowadays things have changed somewhat. Children who seem to be better in one sport or activity are often encouraged to concentrate on that one activity. Their bodies become less adaptable and not as well-rounded. As a result, we’re seeing more and more repetitive-type sports injuries in children.
As we age, we fall into similar routines and patterns that eventually begin to limit our mobility and abilities.
Variety Is Key
Variety is not just the spice of life; it is the key to life.
If you want to live longer and remain independent longer, change your routine constantly.
Ideally, we should all participate in a variety of different types of exercise and activities. If you have an exercise routine, keep varying it.
If you do nothing else, at least start walking. But rather than continuing on the same route every day, change the routine so you’re walking on inclines. Get off the path and walk on irregular, rougher ground. Walk up the hill and back down. Walk up and down the stairwells. Change your pace. Walk barefooted in the sand. Change shoes.
Switch hands doing chores like washing the car or doing the dishes or shaving. To your body, it’s like learning a new skill and a challenge to both the nervous system and your coordination. Start opening doors with your left hand instead of your right. Unload the dishwasher from the other side. Hold onto the counter and practice standing on one foot and then the other, to help improve your overall balance. Start stretching in the morning. Change the chair you sit in when you watch TV.
Every day, every joint in the body needs to be put through its full range of motion. Spend a few minutes each day moving each and every joint.
Three Basic Movements to Do Regularly
At the same time, there are certain exercises you should try to do at least a couple times a week because they provide an amazing foundation for overall fitness and health. Together, they work to maintain strength in all areas of your body, literally from head to toe. You can still do variations of these exercises to change it up and keep things different, as I will explain.
Pushups build your arms, shoulders, and chest. There are many variations.
To increase difficulty, elevate your feet on a footstool, bed, or couch. Then suspend one leg in the air or one arm behind the back (or both).
If you can't do a regular pushup and need to decrease the difficulty, try "pushbacks" using a wall. Stand back from the wall a little further than arm's length, lean in, and put your palms on the wall at shoulder height and width. Slowly bend your elbows, lean into the wall, and repeat for 10 repetitions. Gradually work up to doing this three times. It is more effective if you don't lock your elbows at the end of each pushback.
If you have stiffness or tightness between the shoulder blades, or have a problem with slumping shoulders, you can do a variation of the pushback by performing the maneuver in a corner, with your hands on either side of the corner. This will allow you to dip deeper and feel a nice stretch between the shoulders.
Here are some other tips to get the most out of your pushups:
- Keep your weight at the back of your hands near your wrists rather than on your fingertips. If this hurts your wrists, look for pushup handles at a sporting goods store.
- Protect your back and prevent sagging by keeping your bottom and your abdominal muscles tucked in.
- Keep your hands at least shoulder-width apart to help protect your shoulders.
- Inhale on the way down; exhale on the way up.
The squat is undoubtedly the best exercise for muscles in the lower body. The safest method is to use a sturdy, firm chair as a "safety net."
Stand in front of the chair with your feet spread shoulder-width apart. Keep your back straight, and your arms extended in front of you. Slowly lower yourself until you almost touch the chair, hold that position for a couple of seconds (longer as you progress) and then slowly come to the upright position again.
This exercise will strengthen the muscles in your legs, knees, and buttocks. If you have good balance, you can also strengthen your calves and ankles by rolling up on the balls of your feet when you’ve reached the standing position. If your balance isn’t so good, do this aspect of the exercise separately while holding on to the back of the chair.
To make squats more difficult, use something lower than a chair, like a short stool or ottoman, or work up to a full squat. As you get stronger and your balance improves, consider adding weight to your back (barbell back squat) or by holding dumbbells in your hands at your sides or by resting them on your shoulders.
Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Hold your arms in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing outward and fingers clasped. Keep your hips still and twist your torso clockwise, then counterclockwise, as far as you can. Be sure your arms and head move with your torso.
This is mostly a stretching exercise so don’t "bounce" your trunk at the end of the movement, or you could injure your back. Instead, push as far as you can in one direction before moving back.
Did you know that when you exercise can impact your results?
One study found that obese men who exercised immediately before eating burned more calories than if they exercised at other times of the day. That’s because exercise makes your body’s cells more sensitive to insulin, the hormone that transports glucose from the foods you eat to your cells where it’s used for energy.
Plus, you continue to burn calories long after you stop exercising. In fact, the exercise you do before a meal can help you burn 100 to 250 calories throughout the rest of the day.
Remember, a little bit of physical activity at the right time goes a long way toward improving your health. Keep it varied, keep it fun, and you will reap great rewards.