You may recognize the word "core" as a description of part of your body. You may have heard the word on TV, or read it in magazines and the Internet. It is even a subject for infomercials, but do you really know what it is?
When physical therapists speak about the "core," they are talking about the group of muscles located in the central part of the body, forming a cylinder around the spine. The core consists of all the muscles that run from the ribs to the pelvis in the front and back of the body. These muscles work to keep the spine strong and stable. The top of the cylinder is the muscle called the diaphragm, which is right under the rib cage and is active when we breathe. The bottom portion includes the muscles in the lower part of the pelvis, which together are called the "pelvic floor." The front part of the cylinder is a deep muscle called the transverse abdominus and the muscle that is in the back is called the multifidus.
When these muscles work together, your spine is in a good position - helping you maintain good posture throughout the day, allowing you to breathe and move your arms, legs and head without strain on the rest of your body.
The things we do every day can strain our bodies. Our fast-paced lives are sometimes spent doing things over and over. Some of us have jobs that force us to maintain postures for a long time. We spend a great deal of time sitting at a computer or texting on our phones, which causes our heads to lean forward. This changes our spinal alignment, leading to strain as muscles are stretched beyond their normal length. This poor position can also affect our breathing capacity.
By taking the time to train your core, you become more aware of your body. The more aware you are, the more likely you are to maintain correct posture even when you are busy. You will live your life consuming less energy and probably feel less tired.
To feel your core at work, do this simple exercise: If you are standing up, make sure your head, shoulders, hips and feet are in one straight line with your feet slightly apart. If you are sitting down, line up your head, shoulders and your hips. Put your feet flat on the floor, hip width apart. Imagine your spine getting longer, and at the same time pull in your belly button and drop your shoulders. Take a deep breath in through your chest. Not only are you working your core and improving your posture, but this deep breath will improve the oxygen flowing through your body, and help you relax and face the stressors of your day.
To help avoid problems, do this exercise in a standing or sitting position several times throughout the day, especially as the day wears on and your posture changes. Posture that is not ideal combined with a weak core can create muscle imbalances and harmful stresses on our bodies. Continuing bad habits can lead to too much wear and tear on our muscles, joints and discs, sometimes leading to headaches, as well as joint pain and numbness and tingling in the arms and legs. Once you have the ability to activate your core, you should notice more energy for your daily life. If you are an athlete, or even if you just want to enjoy your non-work time by hiking, biking, climbing or skiing, you should find core exercises and more advanced training will help you better enjoy your exercise and be more successful.
Using your core muscles in whatever your activities may be is a good habit for your life.
Hope Reece, P.T., M.S., is a physical therapist at Flagstaff Medical Center's Therapy Services department. Her areas of expertise include manual therapy, hand therapy, core exercises, wound care and aquatic therapy.