Last time you waved your arm, did you notice a bit of flesh flapping? Then you’re already familiar with how growing older can affect your muscles. “If you’re sedentary, you can lose 8 percent of your muscle mass between ages 40 and 50,” says Vonda Wright, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Pittsburgh and the author of Fitness After 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age. Losing muscle mass doesn’t just leave your arm looking flabby; it costs you physical strength. Aging can also contribute to a less visible but quite serious concern—muscle “imbalances” that set you up for pain and injuries. Here’s what happens: Over the course of years, your everyday habits (carrying an overstuffed purse on your left shoulder, sitting at your computer for hours at a time, wearing high heels) tighten some muscles and weaken others. And the physical activity that will help prevent and reverse age-related muscle loss may not solve the imbalance issue. “Activities such as walking, biking, swimming, running, doing yoga or lifting weights regularly can overtrain some muscles and ignore others,” Wright says.
The problem is that our joints are held in place by opposing muscle groups, such as the chest and back muscles, quads and hamstrings, hip flexors and the gluteus maximus (in the buttocks). To prevent pulls, strains and chronic aches, you need to maintain these muscle groups in a healthy, yin-yang kind of equilibrium. But what you do with your body all day can easily throw everything out of whack. Hunching over your computer, for instance, can tighten your chest muscles and weaken those in your upper back, an imbalance that often leads to neck and back pain—if not now, then probably in your future.
It’s relatively easy to develop the correct muscle balance. Use the following tests to identify your weak or tight spots. Then strengthen or lengthen those trouble areas by doing these exercises three or four times a week.
Sore points: groin, butt or back
Possible pain source Tight hip flexors, the muscles at the front of your hips that allow you to lift your knees, bend at the waist, climb stairs and run. When too taut, hip flexors cause your pelvis to tilt forward, which stresses the muscles of the lower back and spine, making you more susceptible to hamstring strains and lower-back pain.
Test yourself Lie on back and bring right knee to chest. Hold on to knee with right hand, keeping left leg as flat on the floor as you can. If left leg doesn’t relax against the floor, hip flexors on that side are tight. Switch sides.
Why the imbalance Too much sitting! “Working at a desk all day causes your hip flexors to tighten and your butt muscles to weaken,” says Scott Bautch, a chiropractic sports physician in Wausau, Wisconsin. Wearing heels consistently can contribute to the problem, too, he notes.
The fix “During the day, get up and move around at least once every hour to loosen your hip flexors,” says Bautch. And do this exercise: Standing with hands on hips, step forward with left foot into a deep lunge, making sure left knee doesn’t extend forward beyond left toes. Holding that position with legs, shift hips forward so you can feel the tension in front of right hip. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat with other leg. Do three more times.
Sore points: shoulders, neck or upper back
Possible pain source Tight rotator muscles in your shoulders.
Test yourself Reach behind head with right hand and try to touch left shoulder blade. Then try to do the same move with left hand on other side. If you can’t meet your target, you have tight rotator muscles; they’re often less flexible on one side than the other.
Why the imbalance Carry-ing a heavy purse on one side, playing tennis or doing overhead strength-training moves without stretch-ing afterward.
The fix Do the same move as in the test, but let right hand dangle down between shoulder blades. Then put left hand behind your back and reach up, trying to touch right hand. Reach until you can feel a moderate stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on other side. Do three more times.
Sore point: lower back
Possible pain source Tight hamstrings, the muscles at the backs of your thighs. When too constricted, hamstrings are prone to strains.
Test yourself Lie on back with left leg bent, foot flat on the ground. Lift right leg off the ground as far as you can while keeping right knee straight. If you can’t get your leg beyond 80 degrees (the angle formed at your hip), your hamstrings are too tight.
Why the imbalance “Sittingfor long hours is a problem, because that keeps your hamstrings in a shortened position,” says Marilyn Moffat, PhD, professor of physical therapy at New York University. Exercising without stretching the hamstrings can constrict the muscles more.
The fix Sit on the floorwith legs straight in front of you and hands resting on thighs. Slowly walk hands toward feet as far as you can. You should feel pressure but not pain. Hold for 30 seconds. (If you can’t reach your toes, it’s an indication that your hamstrings and lower-back muscles are tight; this stretch will help with both.) Repeat three more times.
Sore points: knees and hips
Possible pain source Tight hip adductors, the muscles on the inside of your upper thighs that allow you to squeeze your legs together. When they are too inflexible, these muscles can cause the femur (thighbone) to rotate inward and throw the knee joint out of line—a common cause of knee pain.
Test yourself Sit on the floor with legs straight, then spread them open as far as you can. If you can’t openthem more than 80 or 90 degrees, or if it hurts to bend forward at your hips with your back straight, your hip adductors are tight.
Why the imbalance These muscles can become tight in women who often sit with their legs crossed.
The fix The stretch is the same as the test. Sit with legs spread as far as possible. You should feel tension but not pain. Hold for 30 seconds and return to starting position. Repeat three times. (See exercise No. 4, left.)
Sore points: knees
Possible pain source Underdeveloped quadriceps, the large muscles on the front of the thighs. Weak quads can also contribute to poor balance. (See “Balancing Act” on page 132.)
Test yourself Place the back of a dining room chair against a wall to stabilize it. Sit in the chair, cross your arms at your chest and stand up and sit down as many times as you can in 30 seconds. You should be able to do this at least 21 times.
Why the imbalance “Inactivity, plain and simple,” Moffat says.
The fix Sit in a chair withfeet flat on the floor. Wrap an ankle weight around right ankle and lift lower leg by straightening knee until leg is parallel with floor. Hold this position briefly, then lower the leg. Do 8 to 12 reps; repeat with left leg. Do the routine one or two more times. (See exercise No. 5, left.)
Next: Test Your Balance
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