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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.