Want to Age Well? Do the Pilates Open Leg Rocker

Pilates helps you build and maintain core stretch and balance as you get older.
Image Credit: Leilani Miller/LIVESTRONG.com Creative

If you want to grow into your golden years gracefully, start by strengthening your core. As your body's movement powerhouse and center of balance, your core plays an essential role in just about every movement you do.

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So, if you plan to maintain independence in older age, building strength and stability in your midsection is imperative. And while there's no shortage of core-shredding exercises, one in particular — a Pilates-based movement called the open leg rocker — is an effective (and often overlooked) way to challenge your abdominal strength.

The open leg rocker — which involves rocking back and forth from a sitting to supine position while holding your legs straight in the air — not only promises rock-solid abs but also boasts other benefits for healthy aging, such as improved balance and limber back muscles.

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Plus, once you get the hang of it, doing the open leg rocker is really fun (think: a core-strengthening seesaw). Ready to rock out and reap the age-related advantages? All you need is your body and an open mind.

How to Do the Open Leg Rocker

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Activity Pilates
Region Core
  1. Sit up with your back straight and your knees bent.
  2. Gently grab your ankles and extend your legs into the air, pointing your toes toward the ceiling. Your body should form a "V" shape.
  3. Keeping your core engaged, roll backward onto your back, then shoulder blades.
  4. Using your abdominal muscles, roll back into an upright position, keeping your legs straight up and open.
  5. Pause for a moment and balance.
  6. Then, repeat the movement, rolling back and forth and holding briefly at the top each time.

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Why the Open Leg Rocker Is Beneficial for Healthy Aging

1. Boosts Core Strength and Stability

The rocking motion of this exercise really tests the muscles in your midsection. "The movement is initiated and controlled from the core," says Leilani Miller, a certified Pilates teacher. "The abdominals must engage to maintain the shape throughout the exercise."

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And that's especially important as you get older, because it helps you keep good posture and ward off back pain — both of which become more problematic with age, Miller says. Posture tends to grow more stooped, and an achy back is a big issue, too. In fact, for people 60 and older, low back pain is one the most incapacitating health conditions, according to an April 2017 review in Scoliosis and Spinal Disorders.

What's more, "core stability helps keep your movements controlled and coordinated," Miller says. And as a result, it can improve your balance (more on this later) and help prevent injuries.

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2. Stretches the Back

There's something so freeing about the relief you get from a good back stretch. And the open leg rocker won't let you down in this regard.

"The combination of the spinal flexion and the stretching of the hamstrings in the full expression of this exercise work together to provide a beautiful stretch for the back," Miller says.

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And doing the open leg rocker regularly can help you stay limber in your later years. "Stretching the back helps prevent stiffness that can often occur as we age and helps keep us mobile," Miller says. Which is crucial, as we know back pain is more common in older adults.

3. Improves Balance

"The open leg rocker is a well-rounded practice in balance," Miller says. Not only does the movement require balance between the upper and lower body as you control the rocking back and forth, but it also challenges your steadiness between the right and left sides of your body.

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Rocking askew (think: wobbling sideways) is a telltale sign of an imbalance stemming from the sides of the body, Miller says. But not to worry: With time and practice, you can build a stable core, perfect the movement and boost your balance.

Balance often becomes compromised as we age, making us more vulnerable to injury, Miller says. And the statistics back her up: One in four older Americans will fall each year, and a fifth of these falls will cause a serious injury, including broken bones and head trauma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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4. Gentle on the Neck

Some ab exercises are infamous for causing stress on the neck (crunches, we're looking at you!). Luckily, the open leg rocker doesn't wreak havoc on these muscles.

"The open leg rocker starts you in an upright posture rather than supine (on your back), so that spinal flexion doesn't have you working against gravity with the position of your head and neck," Miller says.

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While an achy neck is never fun, for some older adults, it's crucial to avoid neck strain. That's because stressing the neck "can worsen conditions like kyphosis [an abnormal curvature of the spine that creates a hunchback], which can be more prevalent during the aging process," Miller says.

Modifications to Steady You in This Move

If you're a newbie, the open leg rocker can be tough, as it involves a ton of core strength and balance. That's OK! Start with these modifications to help you build confidence and control.

1. Open Leg Balance

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Activity Pilates
Region Core

This variation involves getting into the same V position (holding your ankles with your legs straight in the air) and holding the balance. The main goal is to keep your pelvis from wiggling, Miller says. This static hold will help enhance your balance and core strength.

2. Open Leg Rocker With Knees Bent

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Activity Pilates
Region Core

Exactly like it sounds: The same movement as the standard open leg rocker but with bent knees. This variation affords you more balance and control, and it’s a great option for people with tight hamstrings who find the straight-legged version uncomfortable, Miller says.

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