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Q: Do I really need to focus on core strengthening exercises?
A: In a word, yes. Humans aren’t so far away from having been four-footed mammals with tails. Despite our enormously rapid social evolution, our bodies really haven’t evolved that much for hundreds of thousands of years.
Think about getting around on four legs with a tail. Sitting on a chair would be pretty weird, right? One of the trickiest elements of posture to figure out for modern humans is where to put their tail. So, if you still had a tail, would you tuck it under you to sit, or would you flick it out behind you and perch more on the front edges of your “sitting bones”?
There is no wrong answer. You just need to figure out what’s comfortable and stable for you. Sitting is the new smoking—we’ve all heard that. But we’re not going to quit sitting, so we need to find ways to offset the strain. Many modern humans have chronic low-back pain, and we also tend to have bowel issues—from chronic constipation to loose stools. These irritants are often related both to sitting and to inadequate core tone. And that’s where core strengthening exercises come into play.
3 Steps to Finding the Best Upright Posture
The first step in strengthening your core is to determine your best posture. To do so, try the following routine:
- Lie comfortably on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Try to relax and deepen your breathing. Place your hands gently on your belly and feel the breath expand your abdomen. As you exhale fully, draw the navel (belly button) straight down toward your spine. As your breathing gets deep and smooth, and you are connecting to the power of your belly, the next step is to link your mind to this moment of tuning in.
- Focus, and observe the comfort of your lower back. Gently, slowly, keeping pace with your breath, assess whether you prefer to press the hollow space at the low back down to the floor (Pilates “imprint”) or it’s more comfortable for you to allow that space behind your waist to remain peeled off the floor. The former is more like tucking the tail, and the latter is more like flicking your tail out behind you. Typically, the posture that works best for you on the floor will translate to a more relaxed and engaged posture when upright—both sitting and standing.
- Figure out what’s best for your body and enjoy exploring whether this holds true for your sitting and standing during daily activities. You don’t have to be rigid or obsessive about it, just do a loving self-scan semi-regularly throughout the day, and make the subtle adjustments that will serve to both lessen back pain and provide consistent, gentle core toning.
4 Core Strengthening Exercises
Your “core” is not just the superficial layer of rectus abdominis muscles across your abdomen, but the entire apparatus including the guts between the front of the belly and the spine. Core tone actually goes all the way around the back of your body and includes “kidney Qi” and the quadratus lumborum (“back strap”) muscles. Here are some things to consider when strengthening your core:
- Drawing your navel toward your spine in any position is the easiest way to improve core tone. Whenever you can, remember to bring your navel (and the area around it, about the size of a small plate) toward your spine. Keep your spine as long as possible, no matter what position. Gravity happens, and definitely conspires to make us shorter over time. You can counter that with core tone. Just keep elongating and keep drawing your belly toward your spine.
- Aim for 6–10 minutes daily of core tone exercise. There are tons of YouTube videos out there, but I recommend avoiding ones where the instructor wants you to do traditional “crunches” that involve heaving your chest toward your thighs. That move is really hard on your lower back and not nearly specific or subtle enough to do the deep work down to the core.
- To improve core tone in just six minutes a day, try this exercise: Start by lying on your back with your lower back in your preferred orientation. Lift your knees up so that your lower legs are parallel with the floor and your knees are at arms’ length away from your chest—knees over the hips and not hugged toward the chest. Just stay there and breathe. It can be quite challenging!
- Mix your core strengthening exercise routine up a bit. For example, you could tap one foot and then the other foot down to the floor—slowly, moving with your breath, keeping your knees above the hips and not inching toward your head. You can also straighten your legs up to the ceiling with feet flexed or pointed. From there, either pulse your legs straight up (you won’t lift very high at all, just an inch or two), exhaling in little panting breaths on the effort. Or, with legs straight up, you can also lift your arms up to the ceiling and pulse your head and chest up with short exhales. However you choose to do it, don’t flop your head around during this exercise—imagine that you’re holding a grapefruit under your chin. And set a timer. Your abs should feel a little burn after 6 minutes.
It may not seem like much, but just six minutes a day of core strengthening exercises can really make a difference. And taking time to take care of yourself is well worth it—you’ll look great, have more energy, and enjoy your life more.
Got more natural health questions? Find a licensed naturopathic doctor for a virtual (telemedicine) or in-person consultation.