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Four Reasons My Grandmother Was Stronger and Fitter Than You

Posted on May 30, 2013 | 5 comments

Smiling Young Businesswoman Walking Up StairsWhat’s your definition of strength and fitness? Is it how much weight you can bench press or how fast you can run a mile? Those modern measures of fitness may not help us as much as we think. How often do you need to bench press 200 pounds during the course of your day?

In terms of functional strength and fitness, my grandmother was stronger and fitter in her 80s than most of my younger patients today. Here are four reasons why:

1. Increased Leg Strength: Our buttocks and leg muscles are the largest and strongest muscles in our body, yet few of my patients ever squat, a movement that builds those muscles. I have vivid memories of my grandmother in a squatting position. She ate off the ground from a banana leaf. She did her temple ceremonies from the floor. She swept dust from the ground in a complete squat while taking steps to cover large surfaces. Most of us spend most of our days sitting in cars, sitting at work, and then sitting at home. When we go to the gym, we usually do upper body exercises, such as lifting weights. Does this make sense considering that the heaviest objects most of us lift on a daily basis are a computer mouse or a smartphone?

Leg strength keeps you stable when you run and play, protecting you from injury. It improves your endurance, so you can climb stairs without becoming short of breath. It reduces insulin resistance. But people who don’t strengthen their legs age have a higher risk of falling, becoming disabled, or having a limited range of motion as they get older.

If you have limited time to work out, prioritize your buttocks and legs.

Here are some easy exercises you can do at work or at home:

  • Chair hover: Stand partially, and see how long you can hover just above your chair. Keep most of your weight on your heels. Don’t let your knees move ahead of your toes. This exercise is similar to a chair squat, except you hold the position instead of squatting up and down.
  • Air squats: Perform a basic squat without any weights. Do as many repetitions as you can. As you get stronger add weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells, or any nearby object that you can safely hold while squatting. You can even squat while you brush your teeth.
  • Lunges: Learn to do walking or standing lunges properly. Start without weights, and then add dumbbells as you get stronger. Lunge walk around your house or office, or while carrying groceries from the garage to the kitchen.
  • Stairs: Walk up stairs as often as you can. Climb more than one step at a time to really engage your muscles and increase your range of motion.
  • Stand: Get off your chair when you can. Consider a standing work station. Standing engages quads (front thigh muscles), and burns three times more calories than sitting.

2. Increased Flexibility: I used to marvel at my grandmother’s hip range of motion and hamstring flexibility. She could pick up objects off the ground until the age of 86, without any bend in her knees. She didn’t do yoga or any formal stretching exercises. Her hip and hamstring flexibility came from her everyday activities at ground level. Thanks to her flexibility and strong buttock muscles, she never suffered the chronic neck or back pain that plagues so many of my patients.

Sitting for hours stiffens and shortens your hip flexor muscles and hamstrings. Combined with weak buttock muscles, this tilts your pelvis forward, which arches and strains your lower back. In fact, low back pain has more to do with your posture and muscle strength than you age. You can increase your flexibility with a few easy stretches, or with yoga.

  • Hamstring stretch : Many people have tight hamstrings, the muscles on the back side of your thighs. For an easy stretch, sit on the floor with both of your legs straight in front of you. Lean forward from your waist, leaning as far as possible while keeping your legs straight. Hold the position for 15 seconds. Relax, and then repeat.
  • Hip flexor stretch: Hip flexors are the muscles in your hip joint that help move your leg forward when you walk and run. These muscles deserve some special attention. Learn the various ways to stretch your hip flexors, and hold the stretch for at least 15 seconds on each leg.

3. Steps: My grandmother didn’t use a treadmill or an elliptical. She definitely couldn’t run a mile. But if I had attached a pedometer to her, she would easily clock in 10,000 steps a day, many walking up and down stairs. Stand and walk every chance you can get. Studies show that cardio workouts at the gym a few times a week won’t protect you against the health risks from prolonged sitting.

  • Get a pedometer or download a free pedometer app on your smart phone. Start with at least 5,000 steps a day and gradually work toward 10,000.

4. Sunlight: After bathing, my grandmother would spend 20 to 30 minutes drying her hair while sitting in the sun. She often prepared fish, meat and vegetables outdoors in the sun before taking it indoors to be cooked. I’m sure if I checked her vitamin D levels they would have been normal, unlike the majority of my patients who are vitamin D deficient.

It is important to avoid too much sun to reduce your risk of skin cancer, but it’s not natural to completely shield yourself from the UV rays that trigger vitamin D synthesis in your body. Vitamin D helps prevent osteoporosis. Studies also show that vitamin D deficiency may be linked to high blood pressure, diabetes and perhaps even cancer. Get sensible and short doses of sun exposure for optimal health. Discuss this with your doctor if you are concerned about your individual risk for skin cancer.

You’ll need to give up some conveniences to increase your functional strength and fitness, but once you make the commitment, you’ll find it’s easy:

  • At home, use your chair less.
  • Carry the groceries around the kitchen island a few times before you unpack them.
  • When shopping, take the stairs instead of the escalator.
  • Park further away from the store.
  • At work, escape your climate controlled cubicle and take that business call while walking outdoors in the sun.

Get creative. Soon you’ll incorporate greater leg strength, movement and sunlight into your day.

This blog post is contributed by Ronesh (Ron) Sinha, M.D.Palo Alto Medical Foundation Internal Medicine. Dr. Sinha works closely with the South Asian community to help reduce heart disease and diabetes risk, and provides corporate health lectures to promote wellness in the workplace. Dr. Sinha holds clinical faculty positions at UCLA; Stanford University School of Medicine; and the UCSF School of Medicine. He teaches Stanford and UCSF medical students.

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Ronesh (Ron) Sinha, M.D.

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5 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your article so very much. It reminds me your Grandmother and her daily activities.
    Thanks a lot and your mother loves you very much.

  2. Yes – everyone I knew when a child were fairly fit – I grew up in farm country in a very small town – everybody walked everywhere – pushed manual lawn mowers-gardened-climbed a lot of stairs in short did everything themselves but did not go to a gym-almost everything that was done the (30””s-40””s) involved physical labor. Didn””t hurt anyone.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Sihna. There is so much great information in here that we all need to hear. And there””s nothing like being shamed by a grandmother. I””m going to try some of these ideas right now!

  4. So true. My Nana lived to 97, and her mother to 99. Activity is the key. I wonder about my 2 – 3 rounds of golf per week, if I walked at least one? But am most worried about the skin damage. Anyway, here is to a Healthy Summer…let”s get off our bums.

  5. These are common sense suggestions that have been forgotten by many of us. Thank you for the reminder of simple things we can do
    that will keep us stronger and more flexible. Your grandmother is an inspiration.

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