Stay healthy—inside and out—at every age

by Melanie Howard

Your core is key to a healthy body, inside and out. Here’s how to keep it in top form at every age.

When you think “core,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably washboard abs. But there’s so much more to your middle: along with your abdominal muscles, the muscles in your pelvis and hips and around your spine support your organs and stabilize your back, providing a solid center for your entire body.

And if that isn’t enough, your marvelous midsection also houses the all-important digestive and reproductive systems. Read on to find out how to keep your core strong and running smoothly for years to come.

Your 30s:

Strengthen 360 degrees

Many women overwork their abs but neglect other core muscles. “Your muscles deep in the abdomen get very short and tight, and the muscles on the outside of your hips don’t get any work,” explains Sheila Dugan, MD, associate professor of physical medicine and co-director of the Program for Abdominal and Pelvic Health at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. 

Pick an exercise program that focuses on body alignment and overall core strengthening (such asPilates or yoga) rather than just mindless repetition of crunches, says Elisabeth Halfpapp, a founder of the Exhale Spa and co-creator and co-host of the Exhale: Core Fusionexercise DVDs.

Baby your back

During pregnancy, 50 to 70 percent of women complain about back pain, and weak or tight core muscles are often to blame.

To stay pain-free, try the Cat and Cow stretch, suggests Desi Bartlett, a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor and host of the DVDPrenatal Yoga: Get down on hands and knees in a tabletop position; look up, and stretch the front of your body as you inhale (Cow), then slowly round your back and look down as you exhale, being careful not to engage your abs (Cat). This will keep your core strong and flexible without stressing the abdominal framework holding your baby, Bartlett says.

Beat indigestion

It’s normal to have diarrhea, gas, or constipation from time to time. But if your digestive problems persist for at least three months and are so frequent and severe that they interfere with your life, you could have irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Women are twice as likely as men to have IBS, and because periods seem to exacerbate symptoms, the 30s are particularly tough on women with the condition.

What can help: exercise. A 2008 study at the University of Birmingham in England found that IBS patients who logged more exercise had fewer problems with constipation. Exercise also helps reduce stress, which can aggravate IBS symptoms. Try gentle modes of moving, such as walking and yoga, as hard-core workouts can worsen symptoms

Bulk up your diet

If you don’t have IBS and are just dealing with occasional gastro woes, try eating more fiber to help keep your waste elimination system moving. “Eat around the color wheel, which means a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables,” says Mark Pochapin, MD, director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Your 40s:

Hinder hidden fat

On average, women gain a pound a year in the years before menopause. And as hormone levels change, weight tends to redistribute from the hips and thighs to the middle. The pinchable bit under the skin may be what you notice, but it’s the fat surrounding the organs deep in your abdomen that can do real damage. This stuff, also known as visceral fat, has been linked to increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, even cancer.

The best way to fight back: work out more. While diet is important for overall weight control, research suggests that the more you exercise and the harder you work out, the more visceral fat you can lose, even if you don’t cut calories. Aim for an hour a day, either all at once or broken up into smaller chunks.

Work your floor

Always running for the restroom? Leakiness can be due to a weak pelvic floor, which are the muscles that support your pelvic organs. If you haven’t already been doing so, strengthen those muscles now, because later in life, a weak pelvic floor can lead to incontinence and, in extreme cases, uterine prolapse (where your uterus drops downward into your vagina).

Try simple Kegel exercises (you clench your muscles like you’re trying not to pass gas). Work up to 10 contractions held for 10 seconds each, three times a day.

Your 50s+:

Stand strong

Perfecting your posture can help prevent the back pain that can come from years of wear and tear, Halfpapp says. Practice in front of the mirror: make sure your ears are over your shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over knees, and your shoulders rolled back. Soften your knees and concentrate on tightening your abdomen and pulling your pelvic floor up and in.

By strengthening this corset of muscles, you’ll provide better support for your spine, taking pressure off aging discs, bones, and nerves.

Hit the big screen

Your risk of colorectal cancer rises dramatically as you age. The good news: screening is highly effective at detecting this disease early; in fact, the death rate has been dropping for two decades. Have your first colonoscopy at 50 (or earlier if you have a family history of colorectal polyps or cancer).

Be symptom-smart

Don’t ignore bloating and pelvic pain; they could be symptoms ofovarian cancer, which strikes women in their 50s and 60s more often than younger women. While new research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center suggests only 1 percent of women with symptoms like these who are evaluated would be diagnosed with the disease (in other words, don’t panic!), they’re still worth checking out because it’s important to catch this cancer early.

Tell your doctor if you experience any of these signs daily for more than a few weeks: abdominal pressure or swelling, pelvic pain, persistent gas and nausea, constipation, or unexplained back pain that gets worse over time.

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