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Strengthen your core with low-impact workouts and mind body classes

By Tracy Dye

Many think having a strong core means doing sit-ups and getting a six-pack. But this muscle group extends beyond the abdominals.

The core muscles reside in the center of the body and include the inner and outer abdominals as well as the diaphragm, back, hips and the inner and outer thighs. That’s why having a strong core can benefit every aspect of mobility and can lead to greater overall wellness.

You don’t have to pound the pavement to achieve core strength. A variety of fun, low-impact workouts are available to strengthen the core — and decrease stress at the same time.

Low-impact vs. high-impact

Although some use the terms low-impact and low-intensity interchangeably, the two actually are not synonymous. Impact refers to the level of force on one’s body during exercise, while intensity refers to the level of difficulty during a workout. Examples of high-impact exercise include jogging, dancing, gymnastics, high-impact aerobics, tennis and plyometrics (jump training).

Low-impact exercises include yoga, swimming, Barre, Pilates, Tai Chi and QiGong. These workouts are more protective of the joints and connective tissue.

In Pilates, the core of the body is also referred to as the powerhouse — an appropriate term, given the strength and stability resulting from a fit core. Those familiar with Pilates may have heard the core compared to the trunk of a tree; the extremities (or branches) are dependent on the core.

“If the trunk is not stable, I don’t care how strong those branches are — that tree will fall,” said Pat Stewart, an elite Pilates instructor with Columbia Association. Stewart teaches two Pilates classes — Mat Challenge and Mat Tower — at Haven on the Lake, CA’s Mind Body wellness retreat located by the Downtown Columbia Lakefront.

In Pilates, students flow seamlessly from one pose to the next. This fluidity requires constant engagement of the inner core muscles to keep upper- and lower-body movements precise.

“You will burn calories,” Stewart said. “You could probably do Pilates alone and stay fit.”

Elements of Pilates are integrated into Haven’s Barre classes, which draw inspiration from ballet, Pilates and yoga.

“Everything works from the center of your body,” said Susan Bisson, an elite Pilates instructor who teaches Barre Pilates and Mat Tower at Haven. “If you have a strong core, then it’s easier to move all those other extremities in a more fluid motion with ease, strength and flexibility.”

Another great way to strengthen the core is through yoga. Jennifer Randle teaches Restorative Yoga and Balance Board Yoga Boot Camp at Haven. The addition of a balance board mimics the feeling of floating on water.

“People are often surprised at how difficult it is,” Randle said. “It challenges your body in new ways. With yoga, you’re really focusing on the inhalations and exhalations. The way it becomes a workout is that every time you exhale — especially on a balance board — you engage deep core abdominal muscles and it helps to ground you.”

Uniting the Body and Mind

A common thread running through each of Haven’s Mind Body classes is the holistic principle that mental, physical and spiritual health are interconnected.

Felicia Ho is an instructor at Haven who holds certifications in QiGong and Tai Chi, as well as a Ph.D. in eastern Asian languages and cultures. Internal energy classes at Haven include QiGong and Tai Chi — two ancient Chinese traditions that unite the body and mind. In both practices, the core of the body is referred to as the lower dantian.

“This energy center lies in the center of the body, and is said to be the main furnace that sends energy throughout the rest of the body,” Ho said. “This creates a more three-dimensional understanding of how the core affects all movements — from one’s sense of balance, to how posture affects the back, to alleviating symptoms of prolapse, to the meditative quality of the mind.”

By using the center of the body as conduit for energy, participants strengthen muscle groups and improve balance through a variety of gentle whole-body movements.

“QiGong and Tai Chi have bilateral movements that cross the centerline of the body balance — not only the physical body, but the right and left hemisphere of the mind,” Ho said. “Thus, while movements may appear slow, the efforts required to move from the lower dantian in a whole-body coordinated movement increases blood circulation, builds balance, burns calories, warms the body, encourages gentle perspiration and stills the mind.”

While core strength is a focal point, Mind Body classes at Haven on the Lake go beyond physical fitness by using modalities that unite the mind and body in order to achieve overall wellness. Each Mind Body studio offers a peaceful view of Lake Kittamaqundi, furthering the retreat’s mission of helping members recover, reconnect and rejuvenate.

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