You tell your daughter to sit up for the hundredth time as she slumps over her homework. She complies, but before you know it she is lying on the table scrawling answers to her homework that a hieroglyphics expert couldn’t read.
You think she’s just being lazy. But what if it is not laziness at all? What if her body is not strong enough to hold her upright?
Understanding core muscles
"Core muscles are classified as your power house," says Monica Tarchala, a personal trainer and aerobic instructor for the Grayslake YMCA. "These muscles help with your posture and to support everyday activity."
Core muscles include all four sections of the abdominal muscles and both lower back muscles.
"When core muscles are weak, children tend to use compensatory skills," says Sue Larson, an occupational therapist and co-founder of Power To Learn in Libertyville. "They sit with their shoulders up, elbows out and feet wrapped around the chair."
A child with weak core muscles can tire quickly and have trouble keeping up, Larson says. Sometimes his handwriting can start off strong but as his work continues it gets bigger, smaller, lighter or harder. His muscles could be so weak that all of his handwriting is sloppy.
Luckily, simple exercises can be added easily into the day to help strengthen core muscles.
The keys to core exercises are slow and precise motion. It is better to do a few controlled movements rather than several wild ones. This is especially true with children.
"Just like if you work out, the results will not be instantaneous," Larson says. It will take time and lots of repetition.
Here are a few exercises you and your child can try together:
Lay on your back, pull your knees into your body and wrap your arms around your knees. Hold your knees tight together and roll from one side to the other. Repeat 10 times. When your child is a pro, have him cross his arms over his chest. While still keeping his knees together and pulled in tight, see if he can roll completely around to the right and stop on his back. Repeat on the left.
Start by sitting on the floor with your back straight and your feet out in front, Larson says. Keeping your legs straight and together, lift them off the ground. This can be difficult and you may only be able to lift them up a couple of inches at first. As you get better, your body will look like the letter V. To make this a little more fun for your child, once she has lifted her legs, even if it is only a few inches, toss her a balloon. She can catch it or hit it back. She might need to take a break after each throw or two. The goal is to be able to stay in the V shape for five to 10 throws.
Start by lying on your back with your knees bent. Your back should be in a neutral position, not arched up or pressed into the floor. Raise your hips off the ground until they are aligned with your knees. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat three times. To help your child keep this pose, sing London Bridge and send a small stuffed animal under the bridge to see if she can catch it. Just remember that control is the key.
Start on your hands and knees. Place your hands directly below your shoulders. Align your head and neck with your back. Raise your right arm off the floor and reach straight out. While taking deep breaths, hold for 10 seconds. Repeat with the left arm. Then lift up the right leg straight back. Again hold for 10 seconds. Repeat with the left leg. Once your child has mastered this, have him try lifting his right arm and left leg at the same time. Then repeat with the left arm and right leg. To help your child picture the movement, have him pretend he is a lion slowly hunting on the plains.
Arm Chair Sit Ups
Although this exercise is working your arms, your core muscles are stabilizing you, Larson says. Sit with your back straight in a chair with your arms holding both sides of the seat. Lift yourself up so that your bottom and feet are no longer touching the chair and floor. This is difficult. At first, you may only be able to do a few seconds. The goal is to be able to do several sets of 10 seconds or more. As your child does it, instead of counting to 10 have them sing a short song with you.
Start lying flat on your stomach with your arms flying out in front of you and your legs straight out in back. Slowly raise your right arm off the ground keeping your body stable and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat with the left arm. Once your child feels comfortable, have her try lifting both arms and head up. This is a more difficult movement, so you might need to drop to five seconds and work your way back up. When your child is able to do 10 seconds without wiggling, add the right leg, keeping it straight and the toes pointed. Repeat with the left leg. For some children it might be easier to add both legs at the same time. The end goal is to lie on your stomach with your arms and legs straight off the floor, flying for at least 10 seconds.
52 Pick Up
You will need several blocks, a bucket and a two-handed tongs, sometimes called scissor tongs. Spread the blocks around the room. Place the bucket on a counter top or, if possible, a shelf about head level. Take one handle in each hand and squat behind a block. Carefully pick up the block using tongs. Stand up and bring the block to the bucket. Be sure to place the bucket at your child’s head level.
You also will need two-handed kitchen tongs and several blocks for this exercise. Start by sitting pretzel style with a pile of blocks or "worms" to one side. Use the tongs to pick up a worm on one side of your body and transfer it to the other side. For the imaginative child, make a nest with a blanket and add a stuffed bird. When your child is ready for a new challenge have her lay on her stomach and lift up her head and chest, like in Superman, while feeding the baby birds.
Larson says this is one of the most helpful exercises to increase kids’ core strength. Although you can do this on your knees or in a stationary chair, it is easiest if you use a rolling chair. Sit sideways in the chair so that your child’s legs can lay across yours. In the beginning, support him with your arm across his chest as he walks forward on his hands, keeping his balance. The rolling chair allows you to move along with him easily. When he is able to make seven to 10 steps without resting or falling, move your arms to his lower chest, then stomach, continuing down to his hips.
Larson says doing this wheelbarrow (without the chair) up carpeted stairs is ideal.
Fitting exercise in
Although these are quick and easy exercises, sometimes it can seem like just one more thing to fit into an already busy schedule. Here are some fun ways to make a little wiggle room in your calendar.
Important in-core tin
On a piece of paper write the names of the exercises. Cut into strips and place in a tin. During a down time, such as after dinner, before reading a book or even during commercials, pick out an exercise to do.
In this version of Simon Says, each person in the family gets a day to be the caller. He is in charge of what exercises to do. When it is his day, he will be sure to find times to supervise the family’s movements. He might need reminders to keep it slow and controlled, however.
A perfect activity to keep your child moving during cold days. Set up an obstacle course throughout the house. At each station, place one of the exercises. In between stations, have you child slither through chairs, jump over stuffed animals or hop once on one foot and hold for five seconds.
Amber Beutel is a teacher, private tutor and mother of two children living in Grayslake.