The Body MOT exercises

Just like a long-​serving car, older bod­ies need reg­u­lar care and main­ten­ance. Staying fit through exer­cise is largely about keep­ing our key work­ing parts in good order. If acar fails its basic tests of road­wor­thi­ness (MOT), it’s soon for the scrap heap. If we neg­lect our basic body mech­an­ics, we also start to seize up and mal­func­tion

A young woman, a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, oils her car engine, ina black and white image from early 20th century

This set of Body MOT exer­cises all tar­get the most basic level of look­ing after your­self. It’s the stuff that can make the dif­fer­ence between stay­ing inde­pend­ent and hav­ing to rely on out­side help. Or between get­ting out and about and becom­ing increas­ingly house-​bound. Which can also be the dif­fer­ence between enjoy­ing life and strug­gling to get by.

If you’ve never done any exer­cise before in your life, this is a great place to start. All these exer­cises are safe and use­ful to do every day. Do as few or as many as you can cope with

The exer­cises

Below, you can read up on what each exer­cise is good for. But if you just want to get straight on with it, click on an exer­cise here to go to the insturc­tions:

Corset tight­ener: strengthen lower abdom­in­als to sup­port your back

Sit up and listen: sit right and strengthen your back

Sitting and stand­ing: the every­day way to strengthen your legs

Steady on the pel­vis: keep­ing it still, get­ting it mov­ing

Pelvic floor makeover: help your­self to stay con­tin­ent

Ankle loosener: trim­mer, stronger, safer for walk­ing

Way to walk: essen­tial advice on good walk­ing and bad walk­ing

Upstairs, down­stairs: stair-​climbing, pos­sibly the best-​ever exer­cise

How these exer­cises make a dif­fer­ence

Corset tight­ener

There’s a huge amount of research into the body’s “core sta­bil­ity” muscles. We now know that the deep­est lay­ers of abdom­inal muscles are also the most import­ant for help­ing to con­trol every­day move­ment, and in par­tic­u­lar for hold­ing the back steady.

The deep-​lying trans­versus abdominis muscle (TVA) runs like a belt around the lower abdo­men, so when it is gently pulled in, it helps keep the lower spine steady, which means less chance of muscle strain, nerve irrit­a­tion or other lower back pain. The fibres of TVA also inter­lock with those of the pel­vic floor muscles – in prac­tice these two work closely together as sta­bil­isers.

These deep sta­bil­ity muscles are built for endur­ance rather than quick bursts of power. Ideally you want them to keep on work­ing at a low level all day long, which is why the emphasis is on “gentle” or “low-​level” con­trac­tions when you are prac­tising pulling in – it’s the most effect­ive method of strength­en­ing for this type of muscle.

There’s some dis­agree­ment among the sci­ent­ists about how much we need to act­ively exer­cise the TVA. But there is very clear evid­ence that this muscle gets eas­ily switched off after injury or pro­longed bouts of back pain, and it is unlikely to switch itself back on without some con­scious retrain­ing from you.

Try the exer­cise now!

Sitting upright in a kitchen chair, hands lightly supporting at the sides of the chairSit up and listen

We spend end­less hours sit­ting around, at desks, tables, in arm­chairs and sofas. Generally we’re either hunched for­wards or slumped back. Our skel­et­ons dis­like both pos­i­tions.

The best ana­tom­ical way of sit­ting is straight up, where the upright pel­vis can sup­port the nat­ural shape and weight dis­tri­bu­tion of the spine and head. Have you ever wondered how heavy your head is? It’s some­where between 4kg and 6kg – five or more stand­ard bags of sugar. Yet the cru­cial back muscles that sup­port the skel­eton in this pos­i­tion get weakened with accu­mu­lated years of slump­ing and slouch­ing. If you find it a real strain to do this basic sit­ting exer­cise for 30 seconds, your back muscles need a boost.

The point about sit­ting tall as an exer­cise is that it starts to build back strength. It’s not so that you can sit bolt upright in front of the TV for three hours – that would be weird and anti-​social – but so that your back is able to sus­tain a more upright and help­ful spine pos­ture through­out the day, whether you are sit­ting, stand­ing or walk­ing around.

Try the exer­cise now!

Sitting and stand­ing

When health pro­fes­sion­als want to test whether older people are fit enough to cope with inde­pend­ent liv­ing, one of the key tests is being able to get up and down from a chair a few times, unsup­por­ted. That’s because you need a cer­tain amount of leg strength to do the move­ment. If you struggle with this, you’re at risk of run­ning into trouble in your own home.

The exer­cise turns an every­day move­ment into a way of train­ing the vari­ous key muscles in your legs, but­tocks and low back, to keep you above that crit­ical threshold for man­aging inde­pend­ent liv­ing. You’ll feel the bene­fits in far more ways than just being able to sit and stand more eas­ily.

Try the exer­cise now!

Steady on the pel­vis

The pel­vis is the big bony struc­ture that links the cent­ral body, back and legs. It includes what we nor­mally call the hips. Because it’s a large piece of bone, it doesn’t move much. But it is actu­ally made up of sev­eral flat bones sewn together, so there is a bit of move­ment. And import­antly, the pel­vis needs to be able to move sep­ar­ately from the lower back, to avoid over-​stressing the muscles and joints of the spine.

At the same time, the pel­vis has to hold the body steady against the big forces that we routinely put it through dur­ing every­day life.

To do the com­bined job of hold­ing steady and also mov­ing freely, the pel­vis relies on good con­trol by a num­ber of muscles deep within the abdo­men, around the hips and the lower to mid back. If these are not kept well con­di­tioned, they become weak, unbal­anced and some­times “locked up”, espe­cially after a back injury or with long-​term pain.

It’s really aston­ish­ing how pain and tight­ness can dis­ap­pear when cor­rect move­ment and con­trol is restored to the pel­vis. If you’ve had a lot of back or hip pain, you should prob­ably visit a physio­ther­ap­ist or osteo­path before try­ing exer­cises, because they may need to help you repos­i­tion your pel­vis and unlock tight muscles before the exer­cises will work prop­erly for you.

If, how­ever, it’s just a case of everything feel­ing very stiff, per­severe with the gentle move­ments in the pel­vis exer­cise, and you should find things gradu­ally improv­ing over the months.

Try the exer­cise now!

Pelvic floor makeover

Becoming incon­tin­ent is one of the really depress­ing aspects of age­ing. But in many cases you can help delay this creep­ing infirm­ity. In gen­eral, the fit­ter and more act­ive you are, the bet­ter for stay­ing con­tin­ent. But if you don’t have a keep-​fit track record, start work­ing on the “pel­vic floor” muscles that con­trol blad­der and bowel.

It’s par­tic­u­larly com­mon to find that women who were shown these same exer­cises after child­birth just never quite got around to doing them and have been secretly suf­fer­ing with leak­age prob­lems for a long time.

You need to be quite res­ol­ute with this exer­cise: just going through the motions every few days is not going to make any dif­fer­ence. Think of it as a pro­ject and make a prom­ise to your­self to prac­tice every day (sev­eral times) for four months, so that you can really appre­ci­ate the improve­ment.

Try the exer­cise now!

Sitting with foot flexed as part of ankle loosening exericseAnkle loosener

We don’t spend a lot of time think­ing about ankles. Mainly they just exist – until they start to get really swollen or tight. Swelling, tight­ness or stiff­ness in ankles is com­mon, espe­cially for people who are over­weight, arth­ritic, have blood pres­sure or heart prob­lems, or a range of other con­di­tions. Many med­ic­a­tions can cause ankle swell­ing.

Any restric­tions to ankle move­ment make it harder to walk nor­mally. It may simply res­ult in your walk­ing less, becom­ing less act­ive and mobile, which could be the start of a down­ward health spiral. Or you may uncon­sciously start chan­ging the way you walk, which is also going to stack up prob­lems of fur­ther pain and tight­ness and an increased risk of fall­ing.

It’s rel­at­ively easy to do some­thing about this by get­ting your ankles mov­ing even when you’re sit­ting down.

Try the exer­cise now!

Way to walk

Research has shown that age­ing, pos­tural habits, old injur­ies and cur­rent infirm­it­ies all cause us to change the way we walk. By the time we notice, we’ve man­aged to train ourselves out of good walk­ing and into some ter­rible walk­ing habits. Getting rid of a bad habit or repla­cing it with a new, bet­ter one, is much harder than pick­ing up the bad habit in the first place. You need to prac­tice reg­u­larly and with your mind fully switched on if you’re going to get your brain to improve your walk­ing style.

Anyone who has major mobil­ity prob­lems, such as a big dif­fer­ence in leg length, a very bad hip or lower back, or pain­ful foot prob­lems, will be best off get­ting advice from a physio­ther­ap­ist, podi­at­rist or gait-​training spe­cial­ist. But every­one should have a read of the Way to Walk sec­tion, if only to get you think­ing about whether you need to sharpen up your own walk­ing style.

Walking briskly is also an extremely use­ful way to clock up the offi­cially recom­men­ded 30 minutes of daily car­di­ovas­cu­lar (heart and lung fit­ness) activ­ity, and a daily out­door walk can be an incred­ibly effect­ive way of lift­ing your mood when you are stuck in depres­sion.

Try the exer­cise now!

Upstairs, down­stairs

We are all guilty of avoid­ing stair-​climbing. Often it’s the fault of plan­ners and well-​intentioned insti­tu­tions who think they’re doing us a favour by provid­ing escal­at­ors, ramps and lifts, single-​decker buses, single-​storey homes, stair-​lifts and so on. Of course these things are neces­sary for people with dis­ab­il­it­ies who can­not man­age stairs. And they are all fine for all of us some of the time. But once an escal­ator or a lift exists, it’s just so easy to stand there rather than walk…

Because we take the easy way up, our gen­eral abil­ity to climb stairs – a com­plex com­bin­a­tion of muscle strength, heart and lung fit­ness, co-​ordination and bal­ance con­trol – starts to wither. The more effort it takes, the more we go out of our way to avoid stairs. It’s a self-​reinforcing down­hill slide.

Yet stair-​climbing is one of the best exer­cises ever, and it’s free. If more of us went look­ing for more stairs to climb every day, we’d cer­tainly soon feel the phys­ical improve­ments: stronger legs able to lift higher without fear of trip­ping, bet­ter breath­ing, less effort when going uphill, bet­ter bal­ance com­ing down.

Try the exer­cise now!

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