By Dr. Mercola
Poor balance and coordination, weakness or inflexibility in your arms, hips and legs, poor posture, and lack of core strength — these are all factors resulting from inactivity that can lead to stumbling, falls, disability, declining health, and premature death.
Most people don’t realize that their physical fitness is on a downward slope until they have an accident, or find themselves unable to move around as they once did. At that point, while not impossible, it can certainly be far more difficult to make the proverbial U-turn.
Fortunately, there are some very simple tests that can give you an indication of where you currently stand.
As described in an earlier article, a simple sitting test may even predict your longevity. How well you can sit and rise from the floor is thought to indicate your risk of dying over the next six years or so.
Mobility and Health Are Linked
Simple movement tests like these are based on the idea that there’s a connection between mobility and health, and if you find yourself struggling to perform them, they may provide the incentive you need to get back in shape.
As noted in a recent Greatist article:1
“No matter if you're an occasional gym-goer or a committed Crossfitter, there are a few moves everyone should be able to do with ease. They serve as a foundation, and chances are, you're already doing a version of them every day without even knowing.
For example, tons of everyday movements are essentially a squat ... Picking up something you dropped or lifting your pet off the ground are both good examples ...”
Once movements such as squatting to pick something off the floor or walking up a flight of stairs become a challenge, your overall quality of life tends to dwindle, as lack of mobility begets more inactivity.
And, as noted in many previous articles, sitting is an independent risk factor for chronic disease and early death.
Assess Your Upper Body and Core Strength With a Push-Up
Having a strong core and upper body will allow you to maintain good posture, balance, and stability, and conduct everyday movements like reaching and bending more easily and safely.
Two exercises that can help you assess your core strength are the classic push-up and the plank. In the video below, fitness trainer Darin Steen demonstrates the proper form for a push-up, as well as more advanced techniques to target different muscle groups.
The featured Greatist article2 also provides quick demos of each of the movements included in this article, as well as the most common mistakes made.
How to Perform a Push-Up, and What It Means If You Can't
Here's a summary of the basics of proper form:
1. Start in high plank position. Your back and legs should be flat and straight, resting on your toes; your core engaged; your hands level with your chest, and arms fully extended. Pay careful attention and make sure you don't drop your head forward; it needs to be in line with your back.
2. Slowly and deliberately bend your arms at 90 degrees to drop your chest toward the floor, allowing your sternum to gently touch the ground.
Pause there, contracting your core for about 3 seconds, then push yourself back up. Your arms should be straight, without locking your elbows.
3. Pay attention to the alignment of your elbows. The ideal angle from your sides is about 45 degrees. This allows you to effectively work your chest muscles and prevent injuries from overextension.
4. Breathe in on the way down; breathe out on the way up, through your nose, not your mouth.
The inability to perform a proper push-up can indicate a couple of problem areas, depending on your weakness:
- Inability to bend your elbows and lower your chest all the way down suggests you lack strength in your arms, shoulders, and chest.
- Inability to maintain your back and legs in a rigid, flat position, thereby allowing either your hips or lower back to sag, suggests a weakness in your core and/or glutes.
Assess Your Core Strength With a Forearm Plank
To do a forearm plank, you hold your body (the trunk portion) off the ground, making sure to hold it in a straight line, balancing on your toes and elbows. While getting into the proper position is straightforward, holding it takes strength and endurance in your abs, back, and core.
A strong core will also help prevent back pains, and help you maintain strong continence.
In the video above, Jill Rodriguez demonstrates a number of plank variations. The one you’re going to focus on for this general core strength test is the basic intermediate forearm plank, demonstrated at 1:20. To engage your core, be sure to pull in your belly button. Your belly button is attached to your transverse abdominis, that inner sheath that holds your gut inside and gives your spine and vertebrae a nice, weight belt-tightening type of support.
So by pulling it in, you begin to contract that deep inner transverse abdominis muscle. You’ll want to maintain this position, keeping your back flat and in line with your neck, for anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds. If you can hold it for at least two minutes, you're off to a good start.
Lack of core strength is demonstrated by your hips coming out of alignment, either sagging downward or hiking upward in the form of an upside-down “V.” Being unable to hold a plank for about two minutes may also indicate that you're carrying too much weight, and would benefit from shedding a few pounds.
Assess Your Hip Flexibility, Balance, and Leg Strength With a Squat
In the video above, Darin demonstrates safe squat techniques for beginner, intermediate and advanced. Here’s a summary of the basics:
- Stand with your feet just over shoulder width apart. Keep your back in a neutral position, and keep your knees centered over your feet.
- Slowly bend your knees, hips and ankles, lowering until you reach a 90-degree angle. Make sure your hips are kept in line over your knees, and your knees over your ankles.
- Return to starting position.
- Breathe in as you lower, breathe out as you return to starting position.
What does it mean if you cannot perform a proper squat?
- The inability to bend your knees and ankles, thereby disallowing your hips to hinge all the way back, will result in a movement in which you end up raising up on your toes. This suggests tightness in your hip extensors and/or hamstrings, and you’d be wise to start working on improving your hip flexibility.
- If your knees buckle inward upon lowering or raising yourself up, your hamstrings and glutes are the areas of weakness.
Assess Your Shoulder Strength and Range of Motion With a Dumbell Overhead Press
The standing dumbbell overhead press will assess your shoulder strength and range of motion. Research3 has found that standing during this exercise produces far greater muscle activation across the various muscles, compared to seated overhead presses. For example, compared to the seated dumbbell overhead press, the standing overhead press resulted in an:
- 8 percent greater muscle activation of the front shoulder (anterior deltoid)
- 24 percent greater muscle activation of the back shoulder (posterior deltoid)
- 23 percent greater muscle activation of the biceps
To perform a proper dumbbell overhead press, stand with feet shoulder width apart, holding one dumbbell in each hand of a suitable weight. Avoid using weights that are excessively heavy, as this will simply degrade your form. You want to be able to do at least 8 to 12 repetitions for this exercise. Keeping your wrists turned inward, lift the weights to starting position, level with your shoulders.
Proper form during the beginning and end of this exercise is important, to take a look at the short video above for a demonstration. Press the weights up overhead, fully extending your arms before lowering the weights back down to your shoulders. Avoid jerking; the motion should be controlled and fluid.
- The inability to extend your arms straight up overhead suggests a lack of range of motion in your shoulder girdle and weakness in your back muscles.
- If you find you have to arch your back to raise the weights, you probably have weak core muscles, resulting in a lack of stability, or that your hip flexors are too tight, thereby preventing the proper alignment of your hips and knees.
Assess Your Balance and Coordination With a Forward Lunge
Stationary and walking lunges help build lower-body strength while improving balance, flexibility and stability in your hips. This is important for everyday movements such as being able to climb a flight of stairs. I like incorporating simple exercise movements into my everyday routine, outside of my regular workout, and lunges are easy to do when moving about from room to room for example.
I suggest doing about 30 throughout the day, whenever you’re up and moving around anyway. I usually do them when walking from my office to the kitchen several times a day. The only requirement really is to make sure your pants aren’t too tight.
The only difference between a walking lunge and a stationary forward lunge is that in the former, you’re propelling yourself forward, whereas in the latter you return to your starting position. Either one will serve as far as this test goes. To perform a stationary lunge:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Next, take a long step forward with your right foot. Your front heel should be flat on the floor.
- Keeping your upper body straight, descend into lunge position by bringing your back (left) knee towards the floor. Stop just short of the knee touching the ground, with your front heel still flat on the floor. Ideally, both legs should be bent to 90 degrees, with your front knee positioned directly over your front foot.
- Pause for one second and then push off from your right foot to return to standing. Repeat on the other side.
Weaknesses are revealed if you:
- Don’t step far enough forward. This suggests a weakness in your glutes, and/or lack of flexibility in your hip flexors or hamstrings. Strengthening and increasing flexibility in these areas will allow you to step further forward and bend deeper.
- Lean your chest too far forward. While a slight forward motion is natural, an excessive forward lean suggests a weakness in your glutes and core muscles. Be sure to engage your glutes and hamstrings when performing the movement, and avoid leaning forward.
In the video below, Darin demonstrates walking lunge with dumbbells, but you can certainly do them without the dumbbells when first starting out. Using weights will further build your lower-body strength though.
Functional Movement Is Part and Parcel of Health and Longevity
If you maintain good functional movement, balance, flexibility and coordination, there’s nothing stopping you from leading an active life well into old age. Declining quality of life, along with declining health, is an outgrowth of restricted mobility and subsequent inactivity. Once you stop moving, your body inevitably starts degenerating. The five simple movement tests reviewed above provide easy measures of where your weaknesses are, and what you need to work on.