Getting to the Core of the Matter

We are all familiar with the popular catch phrase ‘core strength’.  The term has populated our lexicon since the late 1990’s to conceptualize the importance of achieving and maintaining a strong and lean midsection.  The word ‘core’ commonly refers to the area encompassing our midsection.  The word actually does not tell us a lot about the specifics of what it means to have ‘core strength’.  We all know it’s important, but there is continued debate on what defines the core.

Often individuals work the core to achieve a slimmer waist or 6-pack abs, but core strength is more than just the appearance of your midsection.  The core is an integrated muscular system located in the center of the body whose function is to mobilize and stabilize the body.  In other words, core fitness impacts how well the trunk, arms, and legs function, which directly impacts balance and stability.  It can protect the back from injury by reducing load, enhance physical performance by stabilizing the spine, support a better posture, and improve breathing and balance.

Some argue that nearly every muscle in the body is part of the core.  To keep it simple and to provide some clarity on the term, the anatomy consists not only of the superficial and deep layers of abdominals (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, internal and external oblique muscles, quadratus lumborum), but also includes the pelvic muscles, middle and lower back muscles, and hip muscles. The general definition of core strength can be defined as fitness of these skeletal muscles groups.  With this idea, here are a few benefits of a strong and flexible core:

·     Safer Everyday Activities.  Daily routine activities like carrying groceries, picking up kids or pets, walking upstairs, prolonged sitting, bending to put on a shoe, standing in line, or looking behind you- are all easier mundane task and less likely to result in injury when the core is strong.  Not only do you have better control over your muscles, but you can find your center if you get caught off-balance.  Bending, lifting, and twisting activities will come with more ease and efficiency.  Even basic activities of daily living like bathing or dressing require core strength. 

·      A Healthy Back.  Low back pain is a common problem for Americans.  Back injury and pain may be prevented by engaging in core-strengthening exercises and core-engaging workouts like yoga and pilates.  When back injury or pain occurs, a regimen of core exercises is often prescribed to relieve it, in conjunction with physical therapy, medications and other treatments as indicated.

·      Improved Posture.  A strong core can help maintain a tall and aligned stance.  Weak core muscles contribute to slouching. A good posture requires core muscle engagement which helps to off load the lower back.  Another benefit of a strong posture is better breathing.  The breaths will be deeper and easier.  Good posture can also project confidence thus improving psychological wellbeing.

·      Enhance Athletic Performance.  Almost every sport requires a strong and flexible core to power the activity.  Whether it be golfing, tennis, running, biking, lacrosse, baseball, volleyball, kayaking, or rowing- it’s critical to sports performance.

·      Balance and Stability.  The core stabilizes your body, allowing the body to move freely in any direction, even on tough terrain or standing on one leg.  Core exercises help maintain this stability and prevent falls. As we age, it is vital to continue building core strength which allows for better quality of life and more independence in the elderly.

It is essential to balance strength with flexibility to optimize mobility and core fitness.  Inequality of either strength or flexibility can compress the spine and restrict movement, working against the two fundamental benefits of core strength-protecting the back from injury and enhancing performance.  For example, think about engaging in core strengthening activities with a well-round stretching routine.  Yoga is an excellent example of an activity that can be done to incorporate both strength and flexibility.  It also offers important psychological benefits to boot! 

Join us for noontime yoga Wednesdays at Enhance Health.