When my father was 75, he fell skiing and broke his hip. I felt terrible about it because I encouraged him to ski before the onslaught of the Christmas crowds, even though he felt he wasn't ready to ski so early in the season. What I didn't know was that he was as weak as a kitten. Long gone were the days when he used to do deep knee-bends for his pre-season ski training. I also found that his daily walks had also diminished. He preferred to sit on a park bench waiting for my mother to return from walking her loop, letting his leg strength diminish even more. You'll see it in elderly people; a waddle when they walk, mostly because their gluts are weak. Keeping your bones and joints strong is important to live well, enjoy the activities you love and maybe ski well into and beyond your 70s, as I hope to do.
Osteoarthritis, a disease that makes bones weak and brittle, is a threat for 55 percent of people over 50. You're also twice as likely to fracture something once your bones are affected. What about the other activities you have to do, such as lifting, hauling or going up stairs without being exhausted? And are your gluts and legs strong enough to ski or skate this winter?
Three gluteus muscles all work to outwardly and inwardly rotate your leg, and extend and flex your hip. The short thick muscle on the side of your hip, the gluteus medius muscle, provides stability for your pelvis during walking, keeping it level. Certain habits, such as habitually standing on one leg, with your pelvis tipped sideways, can weaken the gluts by over-stretching the gluteus medius. This causes the ligaments of the hip and spine to become unbalanced, which affects your posture. Even good runners can be affected by weak gluts, the result of the hip's not being able to rotate open enough to keep the knee from rolling inward and causing knee pain. Everything affects everything, it seems.
I'm going to do this until I'm planted
Here's a simple test to see if your gluts are strong. Stand on one leg and reach one arm overhead to the same side as your lifted leg. If your pelvis tilts towards this side, you flunk the test. Sorry. But the good news is that your muscles will adapt and get stronger by doing a few simple exercises. Strength training forces your muscles to adapt to the stress of the weight, whether it's your own body weight, hand-weights, medicine balls or thera-bands. Research shows that 20 percent of people are intimidated by the prospect of going to a gym, but you can easily do these exercises at home.
Place one foot on a stair or step. Step up and pause for a moment at the top of the step. Step down, leaving your lead leg up on the step. Practice one set of 15 repetitions.
Side-lying leg lifts
Place an elastic thera-band around your ankles. Lying on one side, lift and lower your top leg without tipping your pelvis forward or backward. Keep your foot relaxed. Do one set of 15 repetitions.
Squats with elastic band above your knees
The squat (and step-up) is an exercise that strengthens the butt as well as the muscles in the front and back of your legs—the quadriceps and hamstrings.
Place a thera-band just above both knees. Start with your feet facing forward and hip-width apart. Slowly descend by bending through your hips, knees and ankles, as if you were going to sit in a chair. Keep your back neutral, with your chest lifted. Try to get your thighs towards a 90-degree bend, pause and push back up through your feet to the starting position. If you can't get that low, don't worry—just go as far as your knees allow.
Your set of 15 repetitions should feel like that's all you can do. Add hand-held weights if 15 reps are too easy. This builds muscle efficiently and you'll see improvements in your strength and stamina in a few weeks, so you can go out and enjoy winter, like my Dad and I do.
Connie Aronson is ACSM Health Fitness Specialist certified, ACE Gold status certified personal trainer, and an IDEA Elite personal trainer. She's located at the YMCA and High Altitude Fitness