Take off your shoes. That’s right: shoes off. Now, with one foot crossed in front of the other (and without holding on to anything), bend your knees and lower yourself to the floor until you’re sitting in a cross-legged position.
You’re not finished yet, though. To get back up again, lean forward with your hands outstretched in front of you for balance. Then try to rise off the floor, if possible without placing your hands or knees on the floor for support.
So how did you do? Doctors never mention it and most fitness trainers have other fish to fry. But your ability to get up and down off the floor from this position is one of several key indicators we’ve identified that tell us not only how good your mobility is but also signals you are more likely to live a longer, healthier life.
We like to call these indicators ‘vital signs’ because they instantly show how well, and how much, you move in everyday life and we believe they are just as significant in predicting long-term health as charting your pulse, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Why? Because they provide vital clues as to why you might have certain aches and pains.
These exercises allow us to predict how well you might recover from illness or injury and how healthy you will be as you age. The way you move — or don’t move — is one of the most important predictors of a long and healthy life
They also allow us to predict how well you might recover from illness or injury and how healthy you will be as you age. The way you move — or don’t move — is one of the most important predictors of a long and healthy life.
Does your back feel horribly stiff when you get off the sofa? Do your knees creak every time you step away from your desk? Do you struggle to look out of the back window when you’re reversing the car?
Once you get to midlife, it’s hard to ignore the stiffening-up caused by years spent sitting at a desk or slouching in front of the TV, but few of us fully appreciate the impact this can have on our health and longevity.
The problem is that, on an average day, most of us take our joints through only a fraction of the movement range they were designed for.
What’s more, a sweaty hour in the gym, a few competitive sets of tennis, a day on the golf course, and even regular Pilates and yoga are simply not enough to rectify the damage this causes.
In this new series, which starts today and continues tomorrow in the Mail on Sunday, we set out five key tests (our favourite ‘vital signs’) to assess your mobility and suggest exercises and activities that will help improve your scores — and your general health — fast.
These tests are our blueprint for better movement — a lifejacket handed to you with instructions on how to prepare your body for aging, injury and to cope better with the physical aches and pains that come from living in this chair-bound, technology-loving world of ours.
Together, they will help you shake off the rust. Improve your scores and you won’t have to worry about throwing your back out when you change the duvet. Your balance will improve, your shoulders will relax, your spine will become more stable, and knee pain will fade.
Note: When doing these activities, expect a little discomfort and residual muscle soreness, but stop if anything triggers sharp jabs of pain. You should be able to breathe steadily through each exercise. Stop or come down a level if you find yourself holding your breath.
Sit to rest test
This is such a comprehensive test, assessing strength in your leg muscles and core as well as your balance and coordination, that scientists use it as a good indicator of overall health as we get older.
Studies show people who learn to master this challenge with minimal wobbling or support are actually more likely to live longer than those who struggle.
That’s because your body has to be stable, supple and efficient to score high marks on the test, and those physical attributes mean your joints and muscles are all working well, which implies that the rest of your body is more likely to be working well, too.
Significantly, mastering this test means you’ll be less likely to fall as you get older — and far more able to get yourself up again if you do.
Whatever your age, your goal should be to get up and down off the floor without reaching for any support. Keep practising at least once a day until you can do it.
What to do
With your shoes off, stand with one foot crossed in front of the other. Position yourself next to a wall or a piece of furniture if you think you’ll need support. Without holding on to anything (unless you feel unsteady), bend your knees and lower yourself to the floor until you’re sitting in a cross-legged position.
Now, from the same cross-legged position, lean forward with your hands outstretched in front of you for balance, and rise off the floor — if possible, without support.
How to score
Start with a score of ten, then subtract one point each time you do one of the following:
- Bracing yourself with a hand on the wall or furniture.
- Placing a hand on the ground.
- Touching your knee to the floor.
- Supporting yourself on the side of your legs.
10 points — excellent. You have very good mobility. Practise frequently to maintain your skill.
7–9 points — you’re close. With practice, you’ll get a perfect ten.
3–6 points — an acceptable score, but there’s certainly room for improvement.
0–2 points — poor, but don’t be discouraged and disheartened. This is something you can master with practice.
The Couch Test
This test measures hip flexibility and the range of motion in your thigh muscles.
Problems arise because sitting puts your body into prolonged hip flexion, keeping the angle between your body and your upper thigh at 90 degrees.
If we sit for too long, the muscles which run from the pelvis to the thigh bone become stiff or shortened, tugging on the spine, which puts strain on the lower back.
Eventually, the body turns to alternative ways to find balance, causing muscles up and down the body to tighten, possibly spinning the leg, knee and foot outwards.
This test measures hip flexibility and the range of motion in your thigh muscles
Your brain gets used to directing them to do so and hip flexion becomes habitual. Then, when you stand up, these muscles stay engaged, tugging on your spine and creating discomfort.
When hip extension is restricted like this, it basically truncates the forceful movements that enable you to walk and run with ease and speed, and even the action needed to throw a ball far enough to give your dog some exercise.
Working to free this joint is not just basic body maintenance — it’s a great way to offset the ageing process. It will help you move with greater ease. In fact, hip extension may have the biggest impact on your everyday functionality.
What to do
Remove your shoes and stand with your back to the couch. Raise your right leg behind you, bend the knee, and tuck it into the corner of the couch where the back and seat cushions meet.
Rest your right shin against the back of the couch, toes pointed upwards. Keeping your torso as upright as possible, bend your left knee, keeping your left foot on the floor. Now try to squeeze your right buttock and inhale to a slow count of five. Switch sides and repeat the buttock squeeze on the left side (left leg on the couch this time)
This is the ‘starter’ position (position 1, pictured near right), but if it is too difficult, move your knee a few inches forwards from the back of the couch and try the buttock squeeze again.
If this position feels comfortable, tuck your right leg into the corner of the couch and bring your left leg up, so your foot is on the edge of the seat, knee bent at 45 degrees.
Repeat the exercise, squeezing the buttock of the back leg for a count of five. This is position 2 (pictured near left).
Progress to doing this stretch on the floor instead of a couch, if you can. Your right knee, cushioned by a towel, should rest on the floor at the intersection with a wall with your shin resting against the wall behind you, toe pointed upwards.
Place your left knee on the ground in front of you, then, putting both hands on the floor for support, squeeze your right buttock for five seconds. Repeat on the other side (this is position 3).
Increase the challenge by raising your left knee up and placing the foot on the ground in front of you while still supporting your body with hands on the floor (position 4).
For the advanced position (position 5), take your hands off the floor and lift the torso upright.
The test measures your ability to hold a five-second squeeze on the back leg in the most stretched position you can manage.
You reached position one — A good start. Make sure you practise every day and you’ll start to make progress.
You reached position two — This shows limited hip extension. Keep going.
You reached position three — This shows a fairly good range of motion. Keep going until you can put your front foot on the floor.
You reached position four — This is better, keep practising.
You reached position five — Congratulations, you have great hip agility, which will protect you from back and knee pain. Don’t stop practising!
The Squat Test
Our bodies are built to squat, and in many cultures squatting is as common as sitting in a chair. In the West, however, we rarely do it.
This is despite plenty of studies that have shown regular squatting can reduce the risk of arthritic hip pain and increase ankle mobility, making you less likely to fall.
Ultimately, with practice, everyone should be able to squat with their feet parallel (toes straight ahead, weight balanced between the balls and the heels of the feet) and hip crease below the knee.
Ultimately, with practice, everyone should be able to squat with their feet parallel (toes straight ahead, weight balanced between the balls and the heels of the feet) and hip crease below the knee
If you are holding a heavy weight, aim to keep your back straight and torso upright, but if you are just squatting for the sheer joy of it, allowing your back to round can be restorative for the spine, helping to rehydrate the discs.
What to do
Stand straight with your feet hip width (or farther) apart. Now bend your knees and lower your bottom towards the ground, keeping your feet straight, your weight balanced between your heels and balls of your feet.
Place your arms out in front of you and lean your torso forward if it helps you maintain balance. However low you manage to get, hold the position for five breaths.
How to score
The ideal position (one) sees your bottom a few inches above the floor, hip crease well below the knees, toes pointed forward, heels flat on the floor.
If you can’t reach the first position without falling, try angling your toes outward and separating your legs farther apart (position two). Alternatively, keep your feet straight ahead but allow your heels to rise (if you can manage it, this is preferable to the toes-angled-outward position).
If this is still too difficult, try to lower your hips to the height of a chair seat so your legs roughly form a 90-degree angle (three) .
As a last alternative, lower your hips as far as they will go (four) .
You reached position one — This is good news for your hips, knees, and ankles. Practise sitting in a deep squat at least three times a week.
You reached position two — You’re almost there. Keeping your feet facing forward is the most challenging element of squatting. So keep working to improve your foot position with regular practice.
You reached position three — It’s good to be able to hold a squat even at chair height, but keep practising to drop your bottom below this 90-degree angle.
You reached position four — This is obviously an arduous move for you, but keep working at it and you will master the squat eventually.
Adapted from Built To Move: The 10 Essential Habits To Help You Move Freely And Live Fully by Juliet and Kerry Starrett, to be published by Orion Spring on April 6 at £18.99. © Juliet & Kelly Starrett 2023.
To order a copy for £16.14 (offer valid to 08/04/23; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.