“You get what you train for” is an axiom often heard in sports training, but relevant to senior fitness as well. It means physical/functional qualities won’t improve unless you train specifically to improve them and that you keep and maintain what you regularly train for and do often.
It’s an expression of the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. The body responds to the messages we send it for better or worse. Impose no demands by sending a sit/sedentary message and the body will respond with decay & deterioration. Regularly send the right messages (demands) of physicality, movement and function and that’s what seniors will nurture, enhance and defend as they age.
Consider “you get what you train for” in the context of what we’re “training for” with prolonged sitting and the associated sedentary lifestyle. Currently with Covid most of us are “sit-training” even more than the usual norm for our sit-sedentary society.
With sit-training we condition our bodies to be good at being motionless and functionally fast asleep. With sit-training, we lose muscle, bone density and cellular energy-generating processes (think mitochondria) because we don’t need to generate much energy for muscular contraction; with sit-training we lose physical mobility & balance because we restrict our neurosensory input because we lean on chair backs and don’t have body weight moving through our feet to the ground; with sit-training we lose optimal function of key-stone muscles like our glutes because we use them as padding instead of powering our essential hip hinge; with sit-training we lose optimal posture, alignment and core control because we fuse our body into a compressed, semi-fetal, un-functional position.
I have referred to prolonged sitting as “toxic” and “the primary anti-fitness issue in our society”. Mike Reinold, DPT, a respected physical therapist, says “It’s not sitting that is bad for you, it’s never moving that is bad for you”. Mike’s right because any posture/position we hold for too long might have negative effects and movement is mostly programmed out of our lives. So, as a group, we seniors need to try our best to reprogram movement back, because we have the most to lose from the consequences of sit-training, as per the SAID principle.
So besides training to sit well, what are you training for?
ANTI SIT-TRAINING FIRST STEPS
Incrementally reprogram basic movement into your life*: Last post I talked about being creative to re-program movement back into your daily life with conscious strategies that are specific to your circumstances. Make the commitment to have a movement mindset and spend some time thinking creatively for movement opportunities.
The 7-Point Alignment Exercise: The 7-Point Alignment exercise (see right & left) has been called a “game changer” by some in the physical therapy profession. I’ve posted about it here, and it probably gives the most positive outcome for the least time/effort.
Expert Recommendations: Here are five easy to perform exercises physical therapist Mike Reinold says everyone who sits all day should do – they’re all good ones – but they only scratch the surface, which is why you should keep reading.
BE YOUR OWN “ANTI-SIT” TRAINER
Below are ideas I’ve listed from minimally demanding to more challenging in nature – they are programing ideas – some may not be right for your body and it’s up to you to implement with caution if you are a senior.
Take care of your feet while sitting: Don’t underestimate the importance of taking care of your feet for good function – 1) use a tennis ball, lacrosse ball or spiky ball to roll the bottom of your feet; 2) put your feet flat and gently push the tips of your toes into the ground to elevate your arch; 3) actively extend your toes upward toward the ceiling; 4) keep bottom of toes on floor, push your heels up and work on toe extension – bending top of toes toward top of foot – big toe extension is required for walking and can often be lost with age.
Sit in an active manner: 1) Fidget; 2) bounce your heels up & down; 3) interlace your fingers behind your head and pull your elbows back & chest up (prisoner position); 4) actively pull your shoulder blades together; 5) straighten your knees**; 6) do pelvic floor exercises (Kegels); 7) brace your abdominals; 8) squeeze your butt.
Don’t lean against your seat back: 1) Sit up straight using your own postural muscles as often as you can – put a post-it on your computer screen to remind you; 2) perhaps sit on a stability ball*** for a small portions of every hour you spend sitting.
Practice deep breathing while sitting: Deep breathing mobilizes the rib cage & thoracic spine, conditions the diaphragm muscle, and wakes up the deep abdominal core stabilizers. It also reduces stress, particularly when coupled with mindfulness meditation practices.
Get up from the sitting position often: Set your phone timer for programmed reminders every 20 minutes and when you rise be sure to stand as tall as you can through your hips, chest, shoulders and head. Perform the 7-Point Alignment Exercise during your stand up break!
Practice Balance Training: The best way to individualize your balance training is to implement a progressive standing balance drill like the 4-Stage Balance Test****.
Do Reverse Posture exercises: 1) 7-Point Alignment; 2) Wall Ys; 3) thoracic spine extension crossways on foam roll/half foam roll; 4) shoulder blade retractions (pulling shoulder blades together) on a long foam roll/half foam roll.
Become a world-class walker*****: I believe daily walking is a non-negotiable aspect of senior fitness and even if you do other forms of cardiovascular exercise, you still need to walk regularly! Look for any and all opportunities to walk – even if only a few steps around your home. If you can move safely outside, to add benefit, walk with a purpose by swinging your arms from your shoulders and as aggressively fast as your energy/fitness will allow – and look to add hills as your fitness level improves. Research supports that your daily walking doesn’t have to be done all-at-once – break it up into as many “training blocks” of any time duration as you like – but do it well and do it often. If you use a treadmill see my post TREADMILLS FOR SENIORS – THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.
Become a sit-to-stand expert: Repeated sit-to-stands are called squats – an essential life skill – and a fundamental hips-down conditioner (see right & left). I’ve posted about them here and you should master proper technique, scale them to your current ability by adjusting seat height, and do them often. I can’t overstate how important they are to anti sit-training in particular and senior functional fitness in general.
Become an enthusiastic stair climber: Stair climbing is a robust fitness activity built into a common every-day functional task. If you have the leg strength and opportunity, you should look to climb stairs as often as possible. Even just a few stair steps can help with your fitness. Use the railing to assist with an arm pull if you need it – and always hold the railing when descending. If you’re already regularly training with stair climbing, then you should explore the feasibility of occasionally taking a few stair steps two-at-a-time for an advanced fitness challenge/conditioner – but only if you have the core stability and hip/leg strength & range of motion.
*For the first time, the newest edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans contains a recommendation to “move more and sit less throughout the day”.
**Turn straightening your leg into an active hamstring stretch: 1) sit up straight off the seat back; 2) hinge forward slightly from the hips without losing straight back posture; 3) straighten one leg at the knee; 4) pull the top of your foot toward your shin; 5) to add stretch stimulus as needed hinge further forward at your hips without losing straight-back posture.
*** THREE IMPORTANT POINTS: 1) Some back/spine experts like Dr. Stuart McGill do not recommend “prolonged” sitting on a stability ball; 2) Slick surfaces like tile, wood, linoleum and perhaps carpet protectors can be risky for stability ball use due to slippage; 3) proper size & inflation of stability ball is important – you should be able to sit with feet flat on floor with no more than a 90 degree bend in knees and a straight back posture. Except for the very tall or petite, most people will probably require a well-inflated 55 or 65 centimeter ball.
****TWO IMPORTANT POINTS: 1) Find a safe place that allows for using your hands to aid your stability on three sides like a) standing between a door way with chair-back in front of you or b) facing toward right-angle corner of a counter; 2) the purpose of the 4-Stage Balance Test is to a) find your appropriate challenge within the four positions/stages b) train at your limiting or penultimate position/stage to practice your balance. Training entails several repetitions of 10 seconds or longer – I like to see my clients be able to hold a position for at least 30-60 seconds with good technique – no arm swinging or wild body position fluctuations before advancing to the next position.
*****Walking speed has been proposed as a “vital sign” because studies show that increased hospitalizations correlate strongly with reduced walking speed and walking speed is consistently associated with senior’s survivability and length of life.