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4 Key Body Parts You Should Exercise Now

Treat your muscles like an RRSP: The younger you invest, the more you'll benefit later on.

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What happens when we lose muscle?

Though it’s difficult to imagine ourselves in old age, the attention we devote to building and maintaining four crucial muscle areas—upper body, core, pelvis and knees—today will make a significant difference 20, 30 or 40 years down the road, when it comes to carrying out even basic actions, such as walking and bending.

In fact, our skeletal muscles—the fibres anchored to our bones and tendons that enable both motion and force—are integral to how we function. If we don’t take care of these muscles, which start to deteriorate as young as age 25, we’re at risk of injury and a range of problems, from incontinence to weak bones to an increased risk of falls, which often reduces lifespan in those over age 65.

Women are at several disadvantages when it comes to optimal muscle health.

With age, our muscles deteriorate at a faster rate than men’s, explains Michael Bemben, an exercise physiologist and a professor in the department of health and exercise science at the University of Oklahoma. The neurons that control muscles in both genders are programmed to die with age. “Men typically have more muscle to begin with, so they can afford to lose some, whereas women can’t,” he adds.

It’s also more difficult for women to replace lost muscle than it is for men. A study in the journal PLOS One last year found that older women have less effective muscle protein synthesis—the process that breaks down food to build muscle—than men. As a result, the researchers advise women to eat enough protein.

We also need power, endurance and strength. Older women saw only a 10 percent increase in muscle power compared to a 50 percent rise for younger women doing comparable exercises, according to a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Power is more closely related to the ability to perform daily activities and reduce the risk of falls than muscle strength alone, says Dain LaRoche, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire and co-author of the study.

The good news?

With exercise, older women can build muscle strength. But to achieve “net muscle gain,” we need to work on improving our muscle health now, says Jennifer Jakobi, an associate professor at the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia. “It’s like retirement savings: The more you invest in your muscles, the larger the base you have to function longer.”

Here are four main body parts to workout now so that, as you age, you can golf and garden without pain and travel the world without a walker.

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1. Upper body

Why it’s important

As women age, we lose the most muscle in our lower limbs, including our thighs, hamstrings and calves, but we typically notice functional problems in our upper bodies first. “We walk around all day, carrying our body weight, which works out our legs,” explains Rick Kaselj, a kinesiologist and personal trainer in Surrey, BC. “But as we get older, we don’t push or lift things as much.” Strong trapezius, deltoid, biceps and triceps muscles could someday make a difference in doing basic tasks, such as carrying groceries and grandkids. And the weaker they are, the more prone you are to neck strain, says Kaselj. “Our arm, shoulder and neck muscles are interconnected,” he adds.

Exercises that work

To maintain your upper body strength, push-ups are the best all-round upper body exercise. Kaselj recommends both wall push-ups (the farther away your feet are from the wall, the tougher the push-up) and floor push-ups (on your knees is fine, but on your toes is better). Do 10 on the wall and 10 on the floor each day.

(Psst: These simple shoulder exercises will actually sculpt your muscles.)

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2. Core

Why it’s important

We usually think of the core muscles as only the rectus abdominis (the muscle that makes up a “six-pack”). But there are deeper muscle layers, including the internal and external obliques, transversus abdominis and multifidus muscles, that need to be strong to avoid placing extra strain on our much-burdened lower back. A little prevention goes a long way for back pain, which can make even the most basic tasks, such as sitting and bending over, excruciating. To target all the core muscles, activate them during a workout. “Tense them as though you’re bracing to be punched in the stomach,” explains Sherry Swanburg, a certified exercise physiologist in Kentville, NS.

Exercises that work

Swanburg recommends the forearm plank, which strengthens and builds endurance in key core muscles. Lie face down on the floor (on a carpet or yoga mat), resting on your forearms, with your elbows tucked into your sides. Raise your body on your forearms and toes and hold it in a straight line for 10 to 30 seconds, being careful not to let your knees or hips sink or lower your head out of line with your back (look down at the floor). Gradually build up the duration until you can hold it for a full 30 seconds. Do four of these exercises each day.

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3. Pelvis

Why it’s important

Pelvic floor muscles, the sling of muscles that connect the pubic bone and tailbone, are responsible for maintaining sexual, bladder and bowel function, supporting organs and facilitating the actions of the spine and legs. Women are susceptible to weakness in this area, particularly after childbirth. “We tend to not concentrate on these muscles,” says Amy Stein, a physical therapist in New York who specializes in pelvic pain and author of Heal Pelvic Pain. “But any dysfunction in the pelvic floor could cause dysfunction in the bowels or bladder, such as incontinence, and painful sex.” (FYI: This is how soon you can exercise after giving birth.)

Exercises that work

Dr. Sheila Dugan, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, recommends two exercises for pelvic muscles, including the coccygeus and levator ani: Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet on the floor, and smoothly draw in your lower belly muscles as though you’re wearing a girdle or corset. Hold for a count of five, then slowly release. Do 10 of these exercises twice a day.

For a second exercise, lie on your back and lift your internal pelvic muscles inward and upward (your hips don’t actually come off the floor) for a count of five, then slowly lower for a count of five. Repeat as often as possible during the day.

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4. Knees

Why it’s important

While knees contain tendons, not muscles, the strength of your leg and hip muscles—even your gluteus maximus and, in particular, hamstrings—play a role in improving stability and preventing knee strain and injury. Women’s knees are more susceptible to injury than men’s because our wider hips create a stressful hip-to-knee V-angle and our propensity for wearing high heels shifts our weight forward onto our knees. Knee pain can be disabling, making it painful even to walk across the living room. But don’t bother hitting the elliptical machine to target your hamstrings and glutes, advises Kaselj. “It doesn’t work them out at all,” he says.

Exercises that work

Target your hamstring muscles with a simple leg curl: Lie on your stomach. Slowly bring your right heel toward your bum, then slowly return it to the floor. Repeat the move using your left leg. Do 10 of these exercises with each leg each day.

Also, work your glutes with a leg lift: Lie on your stomach and lift one leg straight out behind you so that your thigh is off the floor. Return to the floor. Do 10 of these exercises with each leg each day.

Now that you know the main body parts to work out, next check out the foods that can help you build more muscle.

Best Health Canada
Originally Published in Best Health Canada