Something that has always excited me about physical fitness is that it comes with both short- and long-term rewards. A workout today can lead to an instant endorphin release and sense of accomplishment — but it will likely take months of repeating that very same workout to build a routine and transform the body. This also means that physical activity you do now can have a real impact on how your body functions in the future.
As someone who naturally embraces physical activity in my daily life, the process of aging and perhaps one day not being able to do the activities I love feels a bit daunting — so I'm doing everything I can to make sure my body stays as strong as possible for as long as possible. I may not always have a body that can run marathons, but I can have one that can keep me active and pain-free as I age.
With a little consistency and key movements and practices, you can help set up success for long-term fitness goals and pain prevention that will make future you so thankful.
According to Theresa Marko, PT, DPT, MS, a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy, paying attention to your range of motion is key for long-term health.
A lifetime of slouching and slumping forward — like what many of us do every day at our desk jobs — means you may lose the ability to sit upright and have proper spinal extension, she explained. "And this in turn will also cause your shoulders to lose the ability to fully extend and reach over your head, because the slouch posture limits shoulder range of motion."
Think of range of motion as a combination of joint mobility as well as muscle flexibility. "Fortunately, strength is something that we can always work on and can get stronger," Dr. Marko said, "but you can lose joint mobility and muscle flexibility and sometimes there is no coming back from that at a certain point."
Two really important areas she said to focus on are thoracic mobility (which can help with the ability to sit upright) and shoulder mobility. "Weak scaps lead to all kinds of pain and dysfunction in the shoulders, neck, and thoracic spine," she said.
To improve your thoracic mobility, Dr. Marko recommended working on resisted rowing and scapula strength as well as rolling out your thoracic spine almost daily with a foam roller. As for shoulders, movements as simple as lying on your side and making large circles, clockwise and counterclockwise, with the shoulder can improve mobility.
"The more powerful and controlled the core is, the stronger the limbs are to generate power," explained Karena Wu, PT, DPT, a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy.
But a strong core doesn't just refer to ab work. The core consists of deep abdominals, spinal stabilizers, the pelvic floor, and the diaphragm, Dr. Wu said.
Any exercise that requires balance — like standing on a foam pad, balance board, or DynaDisc — emphasizes activation of these muscles to help stabilize the lumbopelvic region and abdominal organs. Focus on exercises for the transverse abdominis region located beneath your obliques, pelvic-floor training (aka Kegels), and stretches for the multifidus muscle (aka spinal stabilizers).
An easy way to incorporate this into the familiar workout plan you may know is through Pilates. "Pilates is a core-focused exercise that is holistic and incorporates your postural muscles, your core (deep abdominals and spinal stabilizers), your breath, limb movement, and your body's awareness in space (proprioception)," Dr. Wu explained. "It is an excellent exercise that promotes core stability, strength, and stretching at the same time. A good Pilates session will help decompress your spinal column, making you feel tall and lifted, which in the long run combats the downward pull of gravity we experience every day."
For many of us, working out allows us to do enhanced activities — running marathons, completing a challenging boot-camp circuit — but a focus on the functional should not be forgotten. Functional exercises mimic activities done in your daily routine. Thankfully, many functional exercises are ones we're all familiar with: squats, lunges, step-ups, planks, etc.
"These multijoint, multimuscle exercises use the entire kinetic chain, which disperses load in the joints," Dr. Wu said. Basically, these movements activate muscles to work together to perform movements or stay in positions, many of which will benefit us in our daily lives now and in the future.
"When done dynamically, combined with movement of another area, this emphasizes stability in the core, strength, and flexibility," Dr. Wu said. "These exercises also help with range of motion so that we can maintain good joint mobility and stability."
One of the best ways to add functional training to your routine is to pay extra attention to your glutes. Dr. Marko added that not only are strong glutes essential for lateral hip stability, good pelvic control, and staving off lower back pain, but they're also important to ensure safety in basic activities in the future: walking, getting up from a chair, and rising safely from a fall.
Strength isn't the only area of fitness to focus on for long-term health — cardio is also important for ensuring overall wellness. According to Dr. Wu, when it comes to cardiovascular (CV) exercise, we're referring to a repetitive motion that gets your heart rate going, promotes circulation, and moves the extremities.
Yep, you guessed it: running, jogging, and walking are some of the best ways to impact your CV health. Running is the highest-impact CV exercise, but it can be stressful on the joints. Pairing running with jogging or walking intervals can still yield the benefits of CV exercise. So, even if you're opting for a jog-walk combo, this interval format can improve your endurance and strengthen your CV system at the same time. "Heart health and vessel health is important to maintain, and CV exercise is really the main way to keep you strong here," Dr. Wu said.
For many of us who casually practice yoga, it's a move we hardly think twice about. But as it turns out, this simple exercise is actually an all-in-one.
"It is a shoulder overhead press, it is decompressive in the spinal column, and it is a massive stretch to the entire backside of the legs," Dr. Wu said. Not to mention it combines most of the above tips into one movement!
"Include the breath while you hold this position and you have a powerful exercise that is stretching, strengthening, and relaxing at the same time," she said. What's more, the inverted position also challenges your system and combats the daily compression we get from sitting, standing, and walking all day.
Ultimately, none of us know what our future selves will look like, but I take comfort knowing that a few tweaks to my current fitness routine can help set myself up for future successes, no matter how small they might be.