Whether we’re working or retired, most of us spend the majority of our days sitting. However, sitting for long periods can tighten the chest muscles, pulling the shoulders forward and weakening the upper back muscles. Not only that, as we age, there’s a gradual (and completely normal) decrease in bone density and muscle mass, making great posture hard to come by.
Thing is, good posture is even more important as we age. Poor posture in older age decreases a person’s height by compressing the vertebrae of their spine. Also, older adults with forward leaning posture (rounded upper backs) are more likely to experience falls, which can have devastating effects, including loss of mobility and loss of independence.
The good news is that a rounded spine and slumped-forward appearance are not inevitable as we age. A strong upper and mid-back, paired with a strong core — which includes both the abdominals and the lower back — are key to maintaining great posture.
The three exercises below strengthen all those muscles, so you can be standing (and sitting, and running, and golfing…) for years to come.
This exercise strengthens the upper back muscles, keeping your shoulders in place and preventing your shoulders from rounding forward. It also works the core, keeping you stable.
Holding two dumbbells, bend your knees slightly and bend over, sending your hips behind you and bringing your back parallel to the floor. Brace your core muscles (imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach), and extend your arms toward the floor. Make sure your shoulders don’t slump forward. Use your upper back muscles to pull the weights toward your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Return to the start position with arms extended, and repeat. Do 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
If you need lower back support, perform the move with one arm and support yourself on a chair with the other arm. Also, choose a dumbbell weight that’s challenging once you get to 6 or 7 reps. In my work with clients over 55, beginners typically use 5 or 10 lb dumbbells. If you’re stronger, 20 or even 40 lbs might be suitable.
Rear Delt Fly
Your rear deltoids are located at the uppermost part of your back. They’re a small muscle group — so you won’t need to use much weight for this exercise — but they’re extremely important in maintaining a healthy shoulder joint.
Start in the same position as the bent-over row, holding light dumbbells. (My over-55 beginner clients find 3 or 5 lbs to be plenty. Intermediate and advanced clients will use 8 or 10 lbs. Keep your arms straight and squeeze your shoulder blades together to bring your arms parallel to the floor. Lower with control, and repeat for repetitions.
The deadlift is a fantastic “bang for your buck” exercise: in one move you’re working your upper, mid and lower back, as well as your glutes, hamstrings and calves. This exercise helps keep your pelvis in alignment and strengthens your spine, preventing that rounded, hunched-over look.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms straight, with two dumbbells in front of you, close to your body. Focus on having perfect posture, with your back straight and your shoulders in a neutral position. Shoot your hips behind you and bend your knees, keeping your back flat and your head in line with your spine. The dumbbells will travel along your body; stop when they’re halfway down your shins. (This bottom position is similar to the bent-over row, but your back isn’t quite as parallel to the floor.)
Press through your heels, and focus on using your hamstrings and glutes to pull yourself back up to the starting position. Start with 3 sets of 10 repetitions; you can increase the weight of the dumbbells as it gets easier.
These exercises call for a perfectly straight spine. It can be tempting to look up and ahead of you, but that will pull your head out of position. Instead, keep your eyes fixed on the floor, slightly ahead of your feet.
Also, a quick tip about sitting in general. When you’re sitting, don’t let your shoulders fall forward and your head stick out in front of your body (this easily happens while looking at a computer screen). Try not to sit for longer than an hour at a time, and get up regularly to walk around and stretch.
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