Recently, a friend celebrated her 45th birthday. What troubled her greatly was that she couldn’t get on to the ‘tall stool’ like earlier. She just couldn’t climb on to it and then stand up in one smooth movement like she used to. Her legs didn’t seem to have the strength anymore. She was pretty disturbed about it. ‘It’s not a good feeling to be 60 at 45!’ she said. ‘There are exercises to strengthen your calves which are the ‘explosive’ muscles that help you get on to the tall stool,’ I told her. Meanwhile, to wipe the ceiling fan’s blades clean, I suggested she get herself a step ladder. A tip here: If you have bony knees, pad them with a thick cloth because when on the ladder, you need to rest against the top rungs while cleaning the fan.
The call of our calves
It’s wise to see certain ‘inabilities’ that creep up on us as ‘wake-up calls’. Time to get fit. And it greatly helps not to see exercise as ‘tedious’ but go along gamely with Samuel Johnson’s ‘Exercise is labour without weariness’. And as you get deeper into it, it doesn’t even feel like labour, but a lovely preferred activity. Exercise is nourishment too, not just for the body, but also for our confidence, that we’ve got what it takes. Like we engage gears while driving our car, we engage major muscle groups when we exercise our leg muscles, and drive our body smoothly and powerfully.
We don’t realise it but we use our lower body strength to power some upper body movements — like throwing some object forcefully across a good distance or reaching overhead. In addition, strong, exercised legs support healthy movement patterns in our daily life — they make walking child’s play, they make ascending and descending stairs effortless. They do all these wonderful things by simply increasing blood flow to the muscles and nourishing them; they also loosen tight tendons and ligaments which can otherwise get strained and even injured when you play a sport, run up the stairs or hike up a hill.
The beautiful thing is: calf-strengthening exercises are easy to do and you can do them at home or in your cabin at work, in your gym, in a park at a park bench, while visiting a close friend who genuinely doesn’t mind your weird ways! The exercises I recommend are:
Calf-raise 1. Stand facing the wall with feet together, arms stretched out, hands resting on the wall. Lift up on to the balls of the feet and lower. Lift and lower 5 times.
Calf-raise 2. Stand in the same starting position. Lift up on to the balls of the feet, then shift your weight from left to right foot, then right to left, 5 times.
Calf-raise 3. Stand in the same starting position. Lift up on to the balls of the feet, and raise your right foot off the ground so that the left foot bears your weight. Do it alternately 5 times. First, raise right foot off the ground, return. Then raise left foot off the ground, return.
Calf-raise 4. Place a thick cushion on the floor. Stand on it with your heels hanging out off the cushion. Drop your heels lower to the floor and then rise again. Drop and rise 5 times.
The points to bear in mind while doing these exercises are:
Do them quickly. There’s no holding here because we are restoring and improving the ‘explosive’ moving-upward ability of the calves. These exercises help us stand up on high stools.
Calf-raise 2 and 3 are designed to help us walk, climb stairs, run, where we are constantly shifting our bodyweight from one leg to the other, from one foot to the other.
Calf-raise 4 makes walking, running, hiking uphill much easier where you have to sometimes put one foot up and leverage your entire body on it as you swing the other foot up. You don’t teeter or find yourself suddenly frozen, unable to take another step because one leg refuses to rise. Aside: Friend K faced this problem when she had to climb a flight of stairs to get to an important meeting. ‘I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life,’ she said. It’s not just the embarrassment, it’s the shock you get at being suddenly immobile. Nobody deserves to go through such an experience.
Suggestion: If you are already into a workout routine, include two of these four exercises, starting today, for a week. Then include the other two, the next week. In four weeks, when you find your legs have strengthened, you can wear a weighted vest and do these four calf-raises. A weighted vest is a vest with tiny weights spread evenly all through it with little weighted pockets. If you don’t have one or don’t wish to go in for a weighted vest, you could hold dumbbells or filled water bottles in your hands or wear wrist weights. More weight on the upper body means the lower body muscles have to strengthen and adapt to higher weight in the upper body. Say, you’re hiking with a back-pack on. Or going up the stairs with bags of groceries. This adaptive skill gives the body a beautiful balance when you’re on the move. The bonus: it burns more calories if you wish to lose weight.
Hormones that help
Strong legs are a boon against chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes. Leg workouts stimulate substantial amount of hormones such as cortisol, testosterone and HGH (Human Growth Hormones). Cortisol helps the body respond to stress and increase fat metabolism. Testosterone helps repair damaged muscle proteins and build skeletal muscle. HGH promotes muscle growth, boosts immunity and fat metabolism.
It’s great to stand on two powerful pillars. I have a dear relative who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She is unable to stand too long as she feels she is losing her balance. My heart goes out to her. I always tell her, ‘Don’t ever lose your confidence’. Thankfully, she continues to exercise daily including walking, stationary cycling and yoga. Having strong legs not only aligns and balances the body and improves physical mobility and stability, it adds to our confidence and quality of living.
Pulses power muscles
Muscles need protein to strengthen them. Pulses are a rich source of protein, vitamins and minerals. However, we must not ignore the fact that they also contain non-nourishing stuff that can cause gas, bloating and indigestion. Soaking them overnight and then letting them sprout the next one or two days largely negates the action of the non-nourishing stuff and, simultaneously, enhances the effects of their protein and micronutrient content.
Another great idea is to mix pulses with grains. The combination, say nutritionists, prevents premature greying, helps improve bone density, enhances the immunity of the body and accelerates growth of antibodies.
I largely stick to eating baked beans in tomato sauce and pulses such as chick peas, moong, rajma, etc cooked in curries because somehow it is satisfying to get a katori-full of protein into you. But, there are other ways too — pulse-packed papads, pickles, idlis, dhoklas, dosas, laddus, chillas…
Some closing tips for you, dear readers:
*Build confidence: Stride, don’t walk.
*Power your posture: Square your shoulders, raise your upper back while walking. Carry the head over the spine, not jutting out in front.
*Stay hydrated: Drink sufficient water.
*Limber up: Stretch
*Be a dynamo: Get energy from the sun.
*Feel connected: To nature overhead, underfoot and all around you.
Each day, feel a little better, more balanced, stronger, fitter, healthier and more stable. Enjoy your body. Let it sway to the music of your strengthening muscles.
Last word: Travel light. Keep your cellphone at home while out on a walk.
The writers are authors of Fitness for Life and Simply Spiritual – You Are Naturally Divine and teachers of the Fitness for Life programme.