Maybe you’ve had surgery on your vertebrae, spinal injections, or a long series of physical therapy (PT) appointments.
Or perhaps, you’ve simply survived the pandemic, spent too much time confined at home, and simply need to get your body moving and start enjoying your favorite activities again.
Regardless of the reasons you might have slowed down recently, it’s time to take matters into your own hands, time to begin a targeted exercise program to address core strength, good posture and maximum flexibility to protect your spinal health and your whole body.
I recently consulted with Dr. Kiran Patel*, a board-certified physician in Pain Management and Anesthesiology and a leading partner at The Spine and Pain Institute of New York, for her guidance on this matter.
She said, “I like to encourage my patients to keep active, strong and flexible. Though their formal medical treatment may be completed for now, spinal health is a life-long journey. As we age, it is crucial to maintain core strength, flexibility and balance by committing to a safe, appropriate exercise regimen.”
So where do you begin? Try this safe, effective 30-minute workout you can do at home with simple, everyday household objects. Always make sure you have your doctor’s permission to exercise.
Dr. Patel adds, “Upon reviewing this workout it appears to be safe and effective for a majority of healthy, active adults. This, of course, is provided they have their own physician’s permission to exercise and go at their own pace. Do pay attention to the body’s comfortable signals of exertion, rather than pronounced strain. Take it slowly at first, then gradually build your strength and stamina.”
Dr. Patel continues with parting words of wisdom, “Some exercises require flexibility. The key to remaining safe is….don’t force your range of motion. Rather do it gradually over time to achieve your exercise goals.”
Ready to begin? Gather together light hand weights (or substitute soup cans or water bottles), an exercise mat or towel, a playground ball (or pillow or roll of toilet paper), a sturdy chair and a flexible, stretchy exercise band. Wear comfortable, loose clothing and sturdy athletic shoes.
Let’s get started!
We’ll warm up with some upper body posture stretches followed by strengthening exercises.
Y-W: This first stretch mimics letters of the alphabet. Start by standing up tall, feet 6” to 8” apart, abs pulled in with nice erect posture. Reach your arms above your head but slightly angled out so they form the shape of the letter “Y,” then rotate your pinky fingers in. Hold this position to the count of 20 if possible, with nice even breathing. Now lower your arms to shoulder height and bend your elbows to make a shape similar to the letter “W.” Hold again. Repeat the sequence once more with the 20-second hold. Then flow through the “Y-W” pattern at a moderate even pace 10 more times.
T-L: Start in the same standing stance as above, but this time hold your arms straight out to your sides at shoulder height putting your body in the shape of the letter “T.” Hold 20 seconds breathing evenly. Now flip your palms up, bend your elbow and bring them close to your waist on each side. (Do not take the easy route by resting your arms against your body—leave a few inches of space.) Now you are in the shape of the letter “L” on each side. Hold 20 seconds. Repeat the sequence with the 20 second hold. Then do 10 repetitions in a nice even flow.
Side reach and pulse: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Put one hand on your hip and raise the other arm straight up to the sky. Slightly bend your knees, engage your pelvic floor and curl your pelvis forward. Now begin to pulse the elevated arm to the opposite side—very gently—20 times or more. Challenge yourself…how many can you do? When you switch to the other side do the same number.
Stand up/sit down: Find your sturdy chair (one without wheels please!). Stand in front of it as though you were going to sit down in the chair. And that is exactly what you do. The goal is to sit down and stand up at least 10 times—but without holding on if possible. Note, however, for anyone with a balance issue or unsteady for any reason, do hold on—stay safe!
Arm strengtheners: Pick up your set of light weights, soup cans or water bottles. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides, palms facing out. Adopt a nice tall posture with the abs pulled in, knees slightly bent. Raise and lower the weights by bending your arms up and down. Use a full range of motion for these bicep curls. Do 10 to 12, then turn your palms toward each other for the second set. For your triceps begin in the same stance but put your weighted hands by your wrists, your elbows are bent behind you. Straighten the arms in a kick-back until you feel the muscles on the backs of your arms fully engaged. Do 10 to 12, rest, repeat.
Now we move down to the floor where the real fun begins!
Half roll down: Start seated on your mat or towel with knees bent, feet 6”to 8” apart and hold on under your thighs. Take a few deep breaths sitting upright with erect posture. To begin the movement, inhale then start to roll back toward the floor, bone by bone until your arms are straight. Exhale pulling navel to the spine and roll forward. Repeat eight to 10 times. To make it harder squeeze a soft ball or pillow between your inner thighs.
Toe touch abs: Lie on the mat and bring your knees toward your chest into a table-top position. This means your knees are directly over your hips in a right angle; your shins are parallel to the floor. Your head can be lifted up or remain on the mat if you are dealing with any cervical spine issues.
If lifting your head support it with your hands clasped behind your head, thumbs running down the neck. Engage your abs (navel pulled into spine) and squeeze the pelvic floor. Keeping the right angle in your legs, inhale and slowly lower one leg toward the floor; you don’t have to touch the floor if that is not available to you. Exhale as you bring the leg back to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg to make one set. Start with six to eight sets if possible, gradually building up to ten sets.
Single leg stretches: Adopt the same starting position as above with the knees Once again, engage your abs (navel pulled into spine) and squeeze the pelvic floor. Head can be up or down. (Up is harder!) Bring one knee in as close as possible to your chest giving it extra help with your hands; at the same time stretch the other leg as long as possible pointing your toes. Switch; keep on switching being conscious of hugging your mid-line, i.e., legs as close as possible to each other with the abdominal engagement. Start with six to eight sets, gradually building up to ten sets.
Double leg stretches: Back to the same starting position again. This time raise your arms vertically straight up to the ceiling. Your head can be lifted up or remain on the mat. Engage your abs (navel pulled into spine) and squeeze the pelvic floor. Stretch your legs out straight but on a high diagonal; lift your arms straight back over your head on a high diagonal. As you bring your knees back into table-top, circle your arms toward the outside of your body so you can grab your knees as they arrive. Repeat six to eight times, building up to 10 as you get stronger. Once you’re there, add an extra challenge of holding the stretch band in your hands actively pulling it apart on the extension motion, and bring it down to touch the tops of the knees on the inward motion.
Frogs: You guessed it…same starting position, but this time glue your heels together and angle your two sets of toes apart into a “V” shape. Engage your abs; squeeze the pelvic floor. If lifting your head support it with your hands clasped behind your head, thumbs running down the neck as you did before. Now stretch your legs out away from your body like you are zipping everything up together, bring them back into the starting position.
That’s one rep; start with six to eight of them and build up to 10, resting your lifted head anytime you need to—even between each rep.
Criss cross: Here’s a variation on the standard bicycle exercise starting, as usual, in the same position. For this exercise you will need to lift your head and shoulders, so use the prep you’ve been doing for that all along. Engage the abs and pelvic floor; now stretch your left leg out long as you twist the left shoulder toward the stationary right knee. [Think shoulder—not elbow (!) to avoid making it too easy.] Repeat this at least five times on this same size before you switch sides. As you get stronger, add one or two reps to each side before switching sides.
Knee drop stretch: Time for a quick stretch. Lie on your back with your knees bent and close together. Drop both knees to one side as you look in the opposite direction. Take a few deep breaths and switch sides.
Side kick series: Move on to some side-lying exercises for leg strength, core control and stability of the hips and pelvis. Start by lying on your side at the long back edge of your mat. Prop your head up in your hand or lay your head all the way down on the mat using your arm for a pillow… whatever feels best for your neck. Angle your legs forward toward the front of the mat, stacked one on top of each other hugging your midline by gluing those legs together. To begin each exercise, engage the abs and pelvic floor, steady yourself by putting your top hand on the mat in front of you. You’ll do everything on one side before turning over to do the other side.
Long side kick up and down: Flex the top foot keeping the leg straight as you slowly lift it up as high as you can go. Lower it down to the leg on the ground as if it were going through mud. Repeat eight to ten times before moving on to the next exercise.
Front to back: Return to the starting position, lift the top leg just a few inches and swing it in front of you and then behind you. The work here is in keeping your hips stable and stacked by really engaging the core muscles. Repeat six to eight times.
Clam shell: Remain lying on your side but bend both knees (stacked on top of each other) into a right angle. Your heels will stay glued together as you angle the top knee up, just the way a clam shell opens. Lower and repeat eight to ten times.
Inner thigh pulse: Lower the top (bent) knee to the mat and straighten the bottom leg so that your inner thigh is strong like a steel rod. Lift that bottom leg slowly up and down ten times. Finish at the top with ten very small pulses.
Bridge flow: Return to lying on your back with your knees bent, hip-width apart. Stretch your arms up over your head. As you raise your arms up toward the ceiling, lift your pelvis up off the floor as much as you can to form a straight surface down the front of your body to your knees. Keep the lower body in this position as you lower your arms to the mat. Palms touch the mat, lift the arms back up to the ceiling and eventually reach over your head as you lower the back side of your body down to the mat. Repeat six to eight times, working up to ten eventually.
Time to wind down and stretch those muscles you put through their paces.
Windshield wipers: Lie down on the mat with knees bent and feet wider than hip-width apart. Drop both knees slowly and gently side-to-side as if they were windshield wipers on your car. Repeat five to six times.
Figure 4: Return to the same starting position. Put your right ankle on your left knees. Grab your left thigh with both hands and pull it toward you. Use the right elbow to gently push on the right inner thigh to open up the hip. Enjoy that stretch, then keeping the same shape with the legs put both feet on the floor. Now drop both legs to the left and look to the right for a twisting stretch. Repeat the exact same series on the other side.
Pat on the back: Time to stand up now. Just like the name of this stretch indicates, take one arm behind you and give yourself a pat on the back. But to turn it into a therapeutic stretch raise the other arm up and grab that bent elbow with your hand to guide it closer to your ear. Repeat on the other side.
Chin push: Stand up tall, abs pulled in with erect posture. Jut out your chin very slowly just an inch or so. Use your pointer finger to gently push your chin back to a neutral position. Repeat six to eight times.
Neck stretches: Start standing, same as above. Tilt one ear to the shoulder, repeat on the other side. Then slowly look side to side. Look up, look down. Gently roll your head from side to side making by dropping the chin forward, rolling to one side, then the other.
Congratulations! You are well on your way to staying strong and flexible to protect your spinal well-being. Keep it up—hopefully three times a week? Cheers to your good health.
*Dr. Kiran is board certified in Pain Management and Anesthesiology practicing at The Spine & Pain Institute of NY and a Clinical Assistant Professor in Anesthesiology at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. The Spine and Pain Institute of New York is dedicated to the diagnosis, treatment and management of acute and chronic pain. Visit www.spinepainny.com for more information.
Marla Altberg is a Personal Trainer and Pilates Mat Instructor who also holds certificates in Yoga Fit Level One, Barre Vida, Older Adult Exercise and Senior Strength and Conditioning.
PREVIOUSLY: Marla’s Do-Anywhere Healthy Aging Workout
Marla Altberg’s Credentials
- 10 years experience as a Certified Personal Trainer
- Pilates Intermediate Mat
- YogaFit Level One
- Senior Strength, Conditioning and Flexibility
- Barre Vida
- HeadlineHealth.com Content Contributor
- Athleta Flatiron Studio Community Class Instructor
- Carter Burden Center for Seniors–Volunteer Exercise Instructor
For additional exercises you can do on your own, visit her website below: https://mbaltberg.wixsite.com/havefunwithfitness
(c) 2021 Marla Altberg; all rights reserved.