Building and maintaining core strength can help you avoid or at least postpone many of the physical issues associated with aging. And no matter what your age, having a strong core aids good posture and helps prevent back and neck pain. But while there’s no question that Pilates and yoga are excellent ways to build core strength, you can also get a great core workout without classes or special equipment, says Elizabeth Dawes Kim, MD, adult and geriatric psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.
“There are many excellent core exercises you can do at home or anywhere, even in the office or a hotel room,” she says. “What’s great about these is that you don’t even have to be wearing gym clothes, and you can modify them to any level of fitness.” Here are five of Dawes Kim’s favorites.
The building block of any effective core workout is the plank, in all its many variations. “It’s a true whole body exercise,” says Dawes Kim. “Keep your back straight and think about zipping everything together tight, pulling in your stomach and keeping your legs together.” Don’t worry if it’s hard to hold the plank position; start with just 15 seconds and build up very gradually to a minute. If you find it hurts your wrists, rest on your elbows with your forearms on the floor. “It’s actually harder that way, so you get more bang for your buck in addition to protecting your wrists,” Dawes Kim says. Or make fists and hold yourself up on them, knuckles towards the floor.
2. Side Plank
Another option as you get stronger: The side plank. And if dropping to the floor of your office doesn’t seem like an option, push off from a chair or the edge of a table, holding your back straight in an angled position. “You can even do planks on the bed in a hotel room,” Dawes Kim says.
3. Reverse Tabletop Plank
Think of this exercise as doing plank upside down, looking up at the ceiling rather than belly down towards the floor. To get into the position, start seated with bent knees and feet on the floor directly under knees. Then place your hands behind your hips slightly wider than shoulders with fingers pointed towards your body and left hips and torso off the floor. Keep your neck relaxed and your knees, hips, and shoulders parallel to the mat, squeezing your glutes and engaging your obliques and transverse abdominal muscles. “You want to be flat like a table, not arching your back like in a bridge,” Dawes Kim says.
4. Pointer Dog
One of the easiest exercises to learn, pointer dog starts on your hands and knees with your weight evenly distributed between your four limbs. Draw your abs up and reach one arm forward and the opposite leg back, using a tight core to maintain balance. Then switch sides. If balance is an issue, start with just the arms, then just the legs. Pointer dog also can be done easily with a chair in the office. Do five per side, building up to 15.
Remember lying on your back and bicycling your legs in elementary school PE? Well the bicycle is back as a great core-builder. “I love good old bicycle because it doesn’t hurt your back and almost anyone can do it,” says Dawes Kim.
A popular pose in many yoga routines, superman mimicks flying by lying on your stomach with arms extended in front of you. The key, though, is lifting the shoulders and hips so that legs and arms come off the floor. Hole from one to three seconds. A variation, often called Swimming, involves lifting and extending one arm and the opposite leg at a time, as if doing the crawl.
For more home-based core exercises, incorporate lunges and squats, and keep resistance bands handy. “I think resistance bands are the best bet for the money – they are small, packable, and come in all different strengths,” says Dawes Kim. “You can use them while watching TV.” And while hand weights are also great to have around, “you can use soup cans or water bottles for hand weights too; you don’t even need to buy fancy equipment.”