Core Exercises Key to Good Health, Balance & Proficiency in Sports & All Activities, Harvard Reports

Core Muscles - Front and BackWhat are “Core Exercises?” If you answered, “Abs,” you are only partially right.

“Core muscles go far beyond the readily recognized ‘six-pack’ abs that swimsuit models sport,” the authors of a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report on “Core Exercises; 6 workouts to tighten your abs, strengthen your back, and improve balance,” point out.

“Your core includes back, side, pelvic, and buttock muscles as well. It forms a sturdy central link between your upper and lower body,” the authors, Edward M. Phillips, M.D., Medical Editor, Josie Gardiner, Master Trainer, and Joy Prouty, Master Trainer, all of Harvard Medical School, write in an introduction to the new Harvard Special Health Report.

“These muscles work together to allow you to bend, twist, rotate, and stand upright,” the Report explains. “A strong core also enhances balance and stability. Thus, it can help prevent falls and injuries during sports or other activities.”

“In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do,” the authors explain. The “Forces that propel movement originate in your core, or transfer through it on the way to an end destination,” the report states. Thus, it is your core that enables your arms, legs, and body to move.

Strengthening your core can improve your performance in almost all sports and daily activities, as well as improve your balance, posture, and flexibility, prevent falls, and lead to a host of scientifically established health benefits, according to the Harvard authors.

Core Exercises - 6 Workouts to tighten your abs, strengthen your back, and improve balance - Harvard Medical School Special Health ReportThe Harvard Special Health Report on “Core Exercises; 6 workouts to tighten your abs, strengthen your back, and improve balance” is available for purchase online from Harvard Health Publications.

It features 59 different exercises to strengthen your core muscles and improve flexibility and balance, created or selected by the doctors and master physical trainers at Harvard Medical School.

Each exercise is presented with an illustrative picture, and clear and detailed instructions, explanations on number of reps, sets, intensity, tempo, rest period(s), starting position, movement, and tips and techniques, as well as suggested simpler and harder exercises to work the same muscles.

The exercises are grouped in six approximately twenty-minute (per set) workouts, and four shorter approximately ten-minute (per set) workouts.

Benefits of Core Exercises

Here are just a few of the activities and abilities that depend on, and may be improved by, your having strong, flexible core muscles, according to the Harvard Report:

  • Activities of Daily Living — Every day acts like bending, turning to look behind you, sitting in a chair, rising from a chair or bed, walking, or simply standing still, which are involved in housework, gardening, bathing, and the other activities of daily living that enable one to maintain independence into older age, all depend upon and are preserved and improved by maintaining strong and flexible core muscles;
  • On the job tasks — Acts like lifting, twisting, standing, and even sitting at your desk for hours depend upon your core muscles. For example, tasks like phone calls, typing, computer use, and similar work depend upon your back muscles, and can make them store and stiff if you don’t strengthen them, practice good posture, and take enough breaks, the Report points out;
  • Avoiding Low Back Pain — “Low back pain — a debilitating, sometimes excruciating problem affecting four out of five Americans at some point in their lives — may be prevented by exercises that promote well-balanced, resilient core muscles,” the authors state. In fact, core exercises are often prescribed to alleviate back pain, when it strikes, they point out;
  • Sports and Other Pleasure Activities — Activities like golf, tennis, racquet sports, biking, walking, running, swimming, dancing, and many others — even sexual activities — all depend upon and “are powered by” a strong core, the authors explain;
  • Avoiding Falls & Protecting Your Spine with Good Posture — A strong core gives you balance, which “stabilizes your body, allowing you to move in any direction,” and “lessen your risk of falling,” the authors point out. In addition, the good posture that should accompany a strong core “lessens wear and tear on the spine and allows you to breathe deeply.” Good posture even “trims your silhouette and projects confidence,” the authors state;
  • Strong Abs, and a Slimmer Waistline — Finally, core exercises do include exercises to strengthen your abdominal muscles, which, coupled with diet and aerobic exercises to lose weight, can help you achieve and maintain a flatter stomach and thinner waistline.

    In a sidebar, the authors explain that your waistline measurement is a key measure of health. They cite the results of a well-known, large, long-term, Nurses Health Study, which “showed that slipping a tape measure around the waist predicted who has a greater risk of dying from heart disease or cancer, or dying prematurely from any cause.” “Consistently, the larger the waistline, the higher the risk.” “A panel at the National Institutes of Health set the danger mark at 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men,” the authors mention.

Why Exercise, in General?

“Strong evidence from thousands of studies shows that engaging in regular exercise, including but not limited to core work, offers a host of health benefits,” the authors state in a sidebar answering the question, “Why Exercise?”

In fact, “Regular exercise enables some people to cut back on medications they take, such as drugs for high blood pressure or diabetes. And that can ease unwelcome side effects and save money,” the authors state.

Following are a multitude of health benefits that the authors list as deriving from regular exercise. “Regular exercise,” they say:

  • “lowers your risks for early death, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, colon and breast cancers, and metabolic syndrome (a complex problem that increases the risk for stroke, heart disease, and diabetes by lending three or more of the following factors: high blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, a large waistline, and difficulty regulating blood sugar)
  • strengthens muscles, lungs, and heart
  • helps prevent falls that can lead to debilitating fractures and loss of independence
  • helps keep you from gaining weight
  • may help with weight loss when combined with the proper diet
  • eases depression
  • boosts mental sharpness in older adults
  • improves functional abilities in older adults—that is, being able to walk up stairs or through a store as you do your shopping, heft groceries, rise from a chair without help, and perform a multitude of other activities that permit independence or bring joy to our lives
  • helps lessen abdominal obesity, which plays a role in many serious ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, and stroke
  • helps maintain weight loss
  • boosts bone density (provided the exercises are weightbearing, meaning they work against gravity)
  • lowers risk for hip fractures
  • leads to better sleep
  • lowers risk for endometrial cancer.”

Recommended Workouts

Overall Exercise Recommendations

The Harvard authors point to the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which recommend:

  • Aerobic Activity – At least 150 minutes (two and one-half hours) of moderate or 75 minutes (one and one-quarter hour) of intense aerobic activity per week – such as vigorous walking, running, biking, swimming, tennis, dancing, and many other activities.

    The Harvard Report includes a chart to help you determine the intensity of your activity. “During moderate activity you can talk, but not sing; during vigorous activity you can’t say more than a few words without catching your breath,” the authors state;

  • Strength Training — At least twice per week, “for major muscle groups, including your core;” and
  • Balance Exercises — Especially, if you are an older adult at risk for falling.

Core exercises fall “under the second and third categories: strength training and enhancing balance,” the authors explain.

The authors recommend that their core exercises be added to or included within the strength training you should be doing at least twice a week.

Many of the exercises included in the Harvard Special Report actually work more than just core muscles, with some also strengthening your legs, arm and other back muscles, they point out. Therefore, these routines compliment and can be merged with other strength training you may be doing.

The Harvard Core Exercises

Six Core Workouts. The 59 Core exercises included in the Harvard Special Health Report are grouped into the following six routines, each of which, the authors explain, may take approximately 20 minutes for one set (40 minutes for two sets) to complete:

  • Standing Core Workout (vertical) – 9 exercises, including one stretching exercise;
  • Floor core workout (horizontal) – 10 exercises, including two stretching exercises;
  • Medicine ball workout – 10 exercises, including two stretching exercises;
  • Stability ball workout – 10 exercises, including two stretching exercises;
  • Bosu workout – 10 exercises, including two stretching exercises; and
  • Mixed core workout – 10 exercises, including two stretching exercises;

Four Short Core Workouts. In addition, the Harvard Special Report presents four suggested short workouts, each of which can be finished in about 10 minutes for one set of the exercises (20 minutes for two sets). Each of these short routines includes five suggested exercises selected from the 59 Core exercises presented in the six longer routines, including one stretching exercise per short routine.

The first two of the short routines “use only body weight for resistance and are performed on a stable surface,” the authors explain. “The third puts together strong moves for runners, while the fourth takes aim at racquet sports.”

Core Exercises By Sport. The Harvard Report also includes a series of tables indicating which of the 59 Core exercises presented are best for improving performance in each of several sports — including racquet sports like tennis or squash, golf, running, swimming, and biking.

Your Exercise Plan: Working the Core Exercises into Your Weekly Schedule

The Harvard authors recommend that you choose one of the following exercise plans, according to what fits best with your schedule and goals:

  1. Full Workouts – “Do a full core workout two to three times a week. Start with the standing core workout … or floor core workout…, which teach you movement patterns like lunges and planks on a stable surface, using your body weight for resistance,” and then progress to some of the other workouts, “which introduce another level of challenge like the medicine ball for added resistance, or the bosu or stability ball, which force muscles to work harder to stabilize you and hold a steady position.” The authors advocate changing workouts occasionally, to help keep you motivated.
  2. Short Workouts — Do one of the four short core workouts included in the Report (see above) two to three times a week — especially during busy weeks, or if your schedule does not permit time to do the Full Workouts.
  3. Bursts of exercise — “Add short bursts of core work throughout the day,” daily or on certain days you schedule for this. In a section called, “Fit it in,” the authors offer tips for working short bits of core exercise into your daily routine — including multi-tasking suggestions for exercises you can do while talking on the phone or during TV commercial breaks.
  4. Tack on to Strength Exercise Sessions – “Add two to four extra core exercises … to your twice-weekly strength-training sessions,” the authors suggest, as a “fallback position during especially busy weeks.”

To help you work a healthy exercise routine into your weekly schedule and stay motivated, the Harvard Report includes a special section on “Setting goals and motivating yourself.” This section includes a Monthly Activity Calendar along with tips to help you set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time scheduled) exercise goals, monitor your progress, overcome your challenges, and reward your success.

In addition, the Harvard Report includes quite detailed and practical information to study before embarking on the Core exercises, to help you understand the exercises, do them in a proper and safe manner, and measure your progress, including sections on:

  • The importance of your core — explaining and diagramming the major core muscles in your back, pelvis, buttocks, hips, and spine, and how they work, along with persuasive information on “Why strengthen your core?”
  • Safety first – including when to check with a doctor, warning signs, and 12 tips for exercising safely and effectively, such as how to warm up, brace yourself, if it’s too hard, drop down, if it’s too easy, move up, and others. In addition, this section provides a chart picturing the right (and wrong) way to do three of the classic exercise moves.
  • Posture, alignment, and angles: Striking the right pose – including a checklist of pointers to help you determine when you are in fact “standing up straight” with good posture, when you are in “neutral” position, and how to use the clock to help you visualize a 30 degree or 90 degree angle, when the exercises instruct you to move at a certain angle.
  • Getting Started – including how to plan your exercise routines, gauge the intensity of your exercise, and choose the right equipment for the workouts, and why sit-ups (as opposed to the planks included in the routines) may hurt your back; and
  • Measuring gains – including how to do “a baseline test” to measure your endurance, strength, and flexibility before you start your core program, so that you can measure your progress every two to four weeks thereafter. This section also includes pointers on when to progress to more challenging exercises, how to progress, and how to maintain gains, and how to test whether you have excellent balance.

More Information

The full Harvard Special Health Report, “Core Exercises; 6 workouts to tighten your abs, strengthen your back, and improve balance” is available for purchase online from Harvard Health Publications.

For more information on healthy exercise, diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and other lifestyle factors that promote wellness and prevent diseases, see the HelpingYouCare® resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:


Copyright © 2013 Care-Help LLC, publisher of HelpingYouCare®. All rights reserved.


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