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Five for fitness
CORE POWER: Exercise the muscles deep within the torso, the abdominal muscles, those of the back and pelvic floor

Most of us are born healthy and usually remain so with minimal effort till around 20. After that, our body starts to fall apart — like an old, unserviced machine — unless some effort is made to maintain the inherent fitness levels.

The recommendations vary from walking an hour daily (ideal) to 30 minutes three days a week (just about enough to scrape along). Despite doing this, people develop stress, bad posture, arthritis, diabetes, abnormal lipid profiles, hypertension and heart attacks. That’s because they are unaware of the other components of an ideal fitness regimen, the need to simultaneously develop “core strength”, flexibility, strength training and balance.

People are bombarded by adverts of gyms and expensive exercise equipment. The latter may target specific muscle groups to produce a six-pack abdomen and bulging biceps. Most people do not, however, have the time to go to a gym regularly. As for fancy equipment, it usually starts to gather dust after a short period of activity.

Corporate gurus talk about maintaining core strength, and employees take to meditation, religion and prayer as they try to maintain their inner fortitude. Actually, in fitness terms, strengthening the “core” means exercising the muscles deep within the torso, the abdominal muscles, those of the back and pelvic floor. The core is a group of muscles, so a balanced approach is needed to work them all. All body movement is powered by these muscles. A strong back and fit abdominal muscles are needed, or else it results in poor posture and back problems. These muscles work together to support the spine when we sit, stand, bend over, pick up things and exercise. In sum, they are the body’s epicentre of power and balance.

Dancers and yoga practitioners do exercises that give them strong core muscles. They are thus fitter, have better postures and more energy than their peers in old age.

Core training can be done at home. It requires just 20 minutes thrice a week. The exercises are regularly taught as part of yoga and Pilates. CDs and books are also available. Proper demonstration will enable you to do them correctly.

A simple, effective core workout routine which covers all the basic muscles includes the plank exercise (balancing on the toes and forearms), the side plank (where you balance on one arm and leg), push-ups, squats, cycling in the air and lunges. All movements need to be held for 20 seconds at a time. Repeat five or six times.

Strength training does not involve heavy weight lifting. The muscles of the arms legs and lower back can be effectively trained using 1kg weights. This can be done with an iron or aluminum baby dumbbell (available at sports shops). You could even fabricate one by filling a 1-litre plastic bottle with water. The movements are similar to those in a school PT drill. Doing this regularly will slowly and surely build up muscle power.

People often do not give enough importance to flexion training of the muscles. If you don’t do anything more stressful than slow walking, your calf muscles may contract and eventually become tight. They can then restrict the range of motion at the knee and ankle resulting in eventual injury. All the groups of muscles in the body need to be stretched to their limit but there should not be any pain. Stretching is taught in yoga. The exercises are also demonstrated on the Doordarshan sports channel. If you discontinue the activity, benefits are lost in three or four days.

Balance becomes more and more important with age. Training for balance involves standing on one leg at a time with the arms stretched out. Once you are able to do this with ease, try doing it with your eyes closed.

A common misconception is that exercise tires you out. On the contrary, it improves stamina and the ability to perform day-to-day activities. Several studies have shown that it reduces cortisol levels and therefore improves mental strength and reduces stress.

To be effective, exercise training needs to balance the five elements of good health. The routine should include aerobic activity, muscular fitness, stretching, core exercise and balance training.

Sometimes fitting in an exercise schedule with all these components becomes difficult. Try getting up half an hour earlier in the morning to complete the routine. Regular exercise will improve balance and posture and reduce the risk of injury, lifestyle diseases and arthritis, leading to a long, healthy and happy life.

Dr Gita Mathai is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore. Questions on health issues may be emailed to her at yourhealthgm@yahoo.co.in

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