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Aging and Movement
A rationale for resistance and balance training.

Since the early ‘70’s emphasis in the United States has been on improving health through aerobic exercise. Rightfully so, research has shown that frequent participation in aerobic exercise is linked to a reduction in heart disease, improved weight management and better health in general.


I will go out on a limb, however, and say if you haven’t supplemented your aerobic work with resistance and balance training you are very likely to have (or are heading toward) movement deficiencies, poor balance, weak muscle function and diminished strength of the bones - all a recipe for injury!


In 1988 the medical community recognized that the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength with aging was a significant and frequent occurrence. For ease of discussion, they named this phenomenon Sarcopenia. In advanced stages Sarcopenia becomes obvious but in the early stages it is difficult to identify and thus difficult to measure. Therefore, there is not a clearcut agreement on its’ prevalence. It is generally agreed, however, that it begins in our 40’s, by the time we are in our 50’s and 60’s the strength loss is believed to be around 1.5 percent per year and accelerates to 3 percent per year thereafter. With the strength decrease comes a higher incidence of falls and subsequently, fractures.


While the severity of disfunction is difficult to quantify, if we are observant, we can often identify the changes in others. The functional changes are predictable. Balance becomes poor, so in order to maintain balance both feet are kept close to the ground when walking; much like walking on ice, the gait becomes a shuffle. If not a shuffle walk, the other means of maintaining balance is to “waddle” from side to side – keeping the weight directly over our support leg. As we age, we sit more and move less, thus we lose flexibility in our hip flexors. This results in a shorter stride, and those tight hip flexors pull the upper body forward (a forward lean). We also develop postural deformities such as “rounding” of the upper spine and a forward protrusion of the head and neck. We often lose normal movement of the shoulder blades, so many develop elevated shoulders, further adding to the look of the forward protrusion of the head and near disappearance of the neck. Many also lose flexibility in the neck making it more difficult to look over our shoulders while driving – certainly a safety issue.


These changes are gradual. They are so insidious that from day- to-day we don’t even realize they are occurring in ourselves! While we often see the changes I’ve described in others, you say to yourself; “not me”! If that is so, then GREAT, perhaps you’re not there yet! However, I suggest the perspective that my wife Nancy has offered so many times:


“Look ahead ten years, where do you see yourself”?


Do you see your posture as good? Do you have normal movement characteristics: walking, standing, sitting, and reaching over your head? Is your balance good? Let me help you make sure you don’t get there; it is easier to prevent these changes than it is to reverse them. Even if you do recognize some of this in yourself, most of these changes are reversible at least to a certain extent.




Your body is remarkably compliant! It adapts to what you do but, by the same token, it also adapts to what you don’t do!


With systematic training you can slow that decline significantly. By consistently doing appropriate exercises you can resist that downward spiral. Conversely, if you do nothing your body will adapt to that also. In my opinion, it’s not so much a function of aging, as it is from “disuse atrophy”. We all know from experience that we become good at what we do routinely and not so good at what we don’t do.


Do you want to change that downward spiral? It takes time and commitment to an ongoing routine of resistance exercises and stretching. I will outline a multistep program that addresses each of these changes. The only equipment required is an exercise mat, a 4 ft dowel (obtained from your local lumber outlet), and a gallon (or smaller) jug of water or a light dumbbell. Body positioning is important so if you have a mirror it is helpful to check positioning. In some cases, I might make suggestions what NOT to do.


Before I present the program specifics, there are some basic truths that you must understand for this program to make sense. As Nancy would say, “I’m not guessing”! These are facts!


  1. Strong movement is caused by a kinetic chain of muscles working together. No large body movement occurs in isolation.

  2. The “core muscles” are designed to stabilize the body and transfer force from legs through the body to the arms, or transfer force from the arms to the legs. The core muscles “buttress” the spine and keep it supported when we move, but they are not designed to create movement. If you are trying to create force by using spinal movement, there is a great chance of low back injury.

  3. The center of your standing balance is located somewhere between your base of support (between your feet or directly over the foot if you are in a single- leg stance). If you are able to stand without falling, you are in balance (equilibrium). If you extend a weight out in any direction, which will “challenge” that equilibrium, it will engage your core, hip, and leg muscles in addition to your arm(s). The further you extend a given weight (or if you use a heavier weight) the more torque it puts on your support system, thus, the more it will engage the core. The core is working even if you do nothing but stand there and hold that weight.

  4. Unilateral movement (one arm or one leg) will challenge the core but if you use the muscles to buttress the spine it need not cause spinal movement. Therefore, you can strengthen the core without doing traditional core isolation exercises (i.e., sit ups); it has been called vertical core exercises. Every exercise can be a vertical core exercise if you do it unilaterally and are standing without the support of some fixed object. (For balance, however, you may need to keep a table, chair or couch nearby to prevent falling)

  5. You do not need to tax muscles to complete failure in order to achieve gains.

  6. If you can’t do an exercise with good form “you can’t do it”. Poor form indicates that some muscle(s) in the kinetic chain is/are not strong enough to complete the task - this can lead to injury. Don’t continue with the exercise if you can’t do it well. Alternatives are to lighten the resistance or do fewer repetitions. You can increase the total work if you rest between sets. As an example, 10 sets of 3 repetitions nets the same total work as 3 sets of 10 repetitions. If you can’t do at least 3

  7. repetitions with good form you should choose a different exercise or a lighter weight.


MOVEMENT PATTERNS: If you take the time to analyze movement, you will eventually conclude that all movement can be categorized into the following common movement patterns: 1) single leg support, 2) double leg support, 3) lunging, (forward, backward, or side striding), 4) squatting 5) pushing, 6) pulling, 7) reaching (over your head, forward, etc.) or 8) twisting. These movements often occur together and employ several joints (muscles) working together.




If you have experience with traditional “weight training”, you will soon observe that the exercises that I recommend are different. “Traditional weight training” would have you isolate one muscle at a time, add resistance, and, after several bouts of exercise, that muscle will adapt by getting stronger and often bigger. Of course, experience has shown that this is true.


There is nothing inherently wrong with this type of training. You can “sculpt” your body and improve your appearance, but it doesn’t address multi-planer movement. It also doesn’t follow that the stronger muscle will improve functional movement or make that movement stronger.


Please note that nowhere in my program will I mention increasing muscle size. With time, most can and will develop more muscle tone and strength of movement. Isn’t muscle tone and strong movement what we’re looking for? Most of us have no need to increase muscle size, the improved muscle tone and posture will improve our appearance.




It is important to understand that there is a logical sequence of progression that is critical to successful changes. In the any program that emphasizes functional movement, the logical sequence is:


  1. Train patterns of movement first: Development of good balance, normal range of motion and good movement mechanics is the first priority. Of course, standing and sitting posture is important. Good posture aids breathing and puts your muscles in there most efficient position for working. (Phase 1 exercises)

  2. Improve the endurance of that movement: Work up to being able to do at least 15 to 20 repetitions with no resistance (other than body weight) without losing good form. Research has shown that having good muscular endurance is the key to preventing injury. (Also Phase 1 exercises)

  3. Movement with a resistance: Increase ability to generate strength and power with that movement by adding resistance (Phase 2 exercises)

  4. Practice the movement at the normal speed.


Sound difficult? You may envision a gym session lasting an hour or more. The exercises in PHASE 1 and PHASE 2 can be done at home and require little or no equipment. They are selected because they are most likely to train or enhance good movement patterns. These balance and range of motion activities should only take about 20 to 30 minutes per workout. Is that enough time to reverse the movement deficits? Yes, if you do the exercises consistently (4 or 5 times per week).


Remember as Nancy Dornan Bernfield has said many times:




See, Phase One exercises to begin changing the direction of your movement and strength from loss of muscle mass (catabolic) to increasing muscle mass (anabolic).



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