According to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, ordinary household chores can be turned into stretching, toning and strengthening exercises. Called "functional fitness," these exercises can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles and minimize injuries and back problems. And they're more practical than lifting weights or using gym equipment, the academy says.
"What we try to do is make the exercise program simulate what a person actually does in his life, in order to make it functional," says Dr. Joel Press, a physiatrist at the Center for Spine, Sports & Occupational Rehabilitation of Chicago. "We create exercises that look like your daily activities."
Press designed the program, and the activities can be as simple as balancing on one leg while you brush your teeth or sweeping the kitchen floor with deliberate strokes. Here are some examples of the recommended exercises:
- Laundry Toss: Stand about 10 to 15 feet away from the washing machine with the laundry basket about waist high on your left side and the washing machine on your right. Pick up pieces of the dirty laundry and, while turning at the hips, pitch the laundry into the open washer. This exercise can strengthen abdominal, lower back and hip muscles.
- Unload and Lift: As you remove dishes from the dishwasher, turn your body from side to side so your torso twists while you reach to put the clean dishes away. Press recommends putting away one dish or piece of silverware at a time for maximum stretching.
- Rake and Twist: Whether you're raking leaves or sweeping, take long, steady strokes, turning at your hips as you rake or sweep toward your body. Make sure you do this exercise sweeping both from left to right and from right to left.
- Standing Side Stretch: Grab the nearest weighty object, whether it be a carton of milk or a briefcase, and hold it in one hand while standing up straight with your feet slightly more than a shoulder's width apart. Then slowly bend at the waist straight to the side, lowering the hand with the weighted object down your side as far as it will go and holding it for a count of 15 or 20. Repeat on the other side.
Physiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating acute and chronic pain conditions. They use non-surgical treatments and routinely prescribe therapeutic exercises to treat conditions such as lower back pain, arthritis and osteoporosis.
Press, who works with people who have had surgery as well as those with musculoskeletal problems, says it's particularly important for older people to increase hip and buttock strength. When developing an exercise program for his patients, he abides by three words: keep it simple.
"What I've learned in 20 years of taking care of patients with musculoskeletal problems is that you can't give them a book with 20 back exercises or a two-hour program to follow," he says. "If you can give them three to four exercises that fit into their day, there's more of a chance they're going to do them."
Dr. Richard A. Stein, a professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City and a spokesman for the American Heart Association, agrees that patient compliance with long-term exercise programs is usually very small.
And although he doubts people will take the time to toss one piece of laundry at a time into the washing machine, he agrees that heavy housecleaning activities such as mopping and vacuuming can be good aerobic exercise.
"People need to look for the household activities that occur more than once a week and last between 10 and 30 minutes," Stein says. "There needs to be a fair amount of body movement, and it needs to cause you a fair amount of fatigue, as it would with exercise."
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