Not enough people in this country exercise regularly. I know that may sound like a bold statement, but I’m sure it’s true. I don’t have the exact percentages at my fingertips, but until it’s 100% it’s not enough! Exercise is not optional for healthy living. Just like eating and sleeping, it is an absolute necessity.
The problem is that of the three, it’s the easiest to ignore. If you don’t eat for several hours, physiologic changes occur and your brain sends you signals that you should eat. If you’ve ever tried fasting for even one day, you know you must have a lot of mental discipline to ignore such signals. And have you ever tried to go without sleep? (Ah, memories of failed college all nighters…) You simply can’t do it. Sleep is so important that you can’t override it. Your brain will just shut your body down, weather you’re in bed or behind the wheel of a car.
That brings us to exercise. When we don’t exercise, we get equally strong signals (and fairly quick) but we ignore them. Then we attribute them to something else. Ever ride in a car for 2 hours or more, then get out and your body says “move those legs!” or “stretch my back!”… often quite loudly?
But you rationalize and say that it must be the seat. Or, on another day, the elevator is broken and you have to walk up a couple of flights…are you out of breath, do your legs feel like you just climbed Mt. Everest? If so, you’re probably saying, “I must be coming down with something, I’m not feeling well”. No! The problem is you don’t make exercise a regular part of your daily routine! And since most everyone else you know is also complaining of aches, pains, stiffness ,headaches, shortness of breath, etc., etc., you think it’s normal to feel this way. So instead of learning proper exercise, you sit around commiserating with the majority of everyone else getting stiffer, weaker and more deconditioned by the minute…literally.
Now some of you may be saying, “I know I should be exercising but I’m so busy and it’s hard to fit it into my schedule. Work, kids yada, yada….I never have time.” And some others may be saying, “I do exercises 3 x a week because I have to” or “my physical therapist told me to” or “my spouse makes me.” This is better than not exercising at all, but even those of you who dutifully do your exercises could benefit from a shift in attitude. If you casually say…“I have to go to the gym now” you could be preventing yourself from getting all the possible benefits.
We must think of exercise as the gift you give yourself. The same goes for sleeping and healthy eating. Together, these activities become the gift of good health and will lead to living
with vitality and living to the fullest. Whether it’s literally climbing Mt. Everest or taking the grandkids to the park, it means actively participating in life rather than watching it pass you by. That is the gift only you can give yourself.
Regular exercise is a significant part of this gift. So, here are my top 10 exercises that everyone should be doing. If you’ve never exercised at all then this is a great place to start. And I promise you… it will make a huge difference in the way you feel after doing them for only a few weeks! For those of you who already enjoy some of the benefits of regular exercise, make sure you are covering all of the bases so to speak. You may be doing a higher level of some of them. If not, add them to your routine…no wait…. “gift wrap” them and give them to yourself with your next workout!
To narrow down a list to only 10 exercises is nearly impossible. So understand that these are essential exercises for everyone and not a comprehensive list of all you need to do for a full program. The first six are stretching /range-of-motion exercises. In my physical therapy practice, the vast majority of my patients are dealing with low back pain, neck pain, and headaches. It pains me to know that with a few daily stretches much of this could be avoided.
So here we go!
1. KNEE-TO-CHEST : lie down on your back…bend the right knee…grab a hold of it gently pulling it toward your chest and hold 30 sec.---switch legs and repeat. 3x30sec. each leg.
2. SUPINE TRUNK ROTATION : while on your back, bend your knees until your feet are flat on the floor…keeping your knees together, let them roll to the right, stopping when you feel a comfortable stretch in the low back and hold 30 sec.---come back to the center, then repeat to the left…3x30sec each leg.
3. PRONE-ON-ELBOWS : roll over on your stomach lying face down. Now come up onto your elbows (so you look like the sphinx ) this is a passive stretch so just allow your weight to be supported with the elbows directly under the shoulders…hold for 30 seconds…then lie down flat again ---repeat 3x30sec.
4. HAMSTRING STRETCH : sitting in a chair, pull another chair (or stool ) in front of you…put your right leg up on the 2nd chair while keeping the left foot on the floor. Now, sitting up with your back straight, gently lean your chest toward your toes looking straight ahead (not nose to knees) . You won’t have to lean far before you feel a stretch behind your right knee/thigh. Hold for 30 seconds then switch legs and repeat do 3x30sec.each leg.
5. CALF STRETCH : take a medium towel and form it into a small roll about 4 in. in diameter, then place it on the floor approximately 12-18 in. away from the wall. In the standing position, place the front part of your right foot on the towel leaving your heel on the ground (hold wall for balance if necessary)…putting your left foot slightly forward of your right foot, gently lean forward keeping the right leg straight…feel the stretch in the right lower leg and hold 30 sec. Switch legs and repeat. Do each leg 3x30 sec.
6. NECK RANGE-OF-MOTION/CHIN TUCK: standing position...gently look to the right and pause… then rotate your head looking back to the left and pause…repeat 10x. Look straight ahead…now gently look down and pause…then look up and pause…repeat 10x… now looking straight ahead again, side bend your head to the right bringing your right ear toward the right shoulder (note: it won’t go past 40-45 degrees)…then back toward the left shoulder…repeat 10x. For the chin tuck start in standing position with good posture. Looking straight ahead gently tuck your chin in…your head should move slightly backward only about 1-1.5 in… eyes front/head level, never looking up or down. Repeat 10x holding 3 sec. each.
7. PELVIC TILT /STABLIZATION : lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, tighten your abs causing the ribs to pull down toward your pelvis. (Don’t suck your stomach in and don’t hold your breath either!). Your abdominals should make a tight flat bridge from the ribs to the pelvis, no indentation. Hold this contraction 3 sec. and repeat 10x. Once you get good at this, you can increase the difficulty by adding a gentle marching movement while holding the ab contraction. (Note: feet only come up 4-6 in. off the floor) repeat alternating 10x each leg.
8. NO MONEY: In the standing position with arms at your side, bend your elbows to 90 degrees with palms up like you’re showing you have “no money”…now move your hands away from each other keeping your elbows at your side… then return back to the starting position hand in front. Repeat 10x. don’t strain too hard at the end range but you should gently feel your shoulder blades squeezing together.
9. CHAIR SQUATS: sitting in a chair about half way back with your feet about hip width apart, grasp your hands together, tighten your abdominals and stand straight up…then sit back down without moving your feet or using your hands for assistance. Repeat 10x (If you’re just starting to exercise, you may need to start with only 2 and work your way up to 10).
10. WALKING: wearing supportive walking shoes, get out and GO! 1st timers start with 10 min. at a moderate pace, then work your way up to 30 min. Gradually increase your speed and time up to 45-60 minutes continuously.
To some this may sound like a lot, to others way too simple. Doing these “top 10” exercises, or some higher level version will cover most of the essentials (stretching, postural strengthening and cardio conditioning) that we ALL need to do consistently. But don’t do them because you feel you have to or because I said so. Do them because you know they will make you feel good. Make them a part of the gift of good health. No one else can give you this…so this holiday season (and forever) make it the gift you give yourself!
As a Physical Therapist for more than 27 years specializing in manual therapy, low back pain and sports orthopedics, Ken has been an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware and authored "Tennis Elbow...a Closer Look", "The Healthy Back School" and "Clinical Applications of Water Therapy". Currently a nationally ranked tennis player, high school tennis coach and certified USPTA tennis teaching pro, he has lectured at the International USPTA annual conference on topics like "The Top 10 Exercises for Elite Tennis Players”. He has also been the PT (and special assistant coach) for the World Team Tennis franchise Delaware Smash.