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Note: This article was originally published in the March 2006 issue of the Denver publication Community News.
Whether we're talking a flatter stomach, a stronger lower back, a more shapely rear end, slimmer and firmer thighs, or greater leg strength, most of us could benefit from a regular program of lower-body exercises. The good news is that there's lots you can do minus any equipment at all. Here are my top four picks:
Regular, brisk walking can tone all the lower-body muscles, help you lose weight, improve your heart health, and lift your spirits. Even 15-20 minutes of walking 3 or 4 times a week can get good results. If walking outdoors is not convenient, consider investing in a treadmill. Play It Again Sports has bargains on used ones.
If you live in a house with more than one floor, be glad! Going up and down those stairs several times a day is strengthening your legs and heart. Try going up and down them more often than you actually need to. If you work in a building with multiple stories, and if you have no heart or knee problems, try taking one or two flights of stairs every morning. Gradually build up to doing more if possible.
Leg and hip strength declines with age. Is getting up from a chair or out of a car harder than it used to be? Try this simple up, down, up, down exercise, as long as it's not too hard on your knees. Sit in a stable chair with a firm seat, then try to stand up without using your hands. Stand, sit, stand, sit, etc. If you do this 15-20 times a day 2 or 3 times a week, you'll see rapid improvement. If you're over 50, some extra Vitamin D can help, too. Up to 1000 IU per day is quite safe.
For the calf muscles, hold onto something with one hand, then smoothly rise up and down on the balls of the feet 10-15 times with your legs straight. This is even more effective done on a staircase, with the balls of the feet on the step and the heels coming down below the level of the step in the bottom position. For safety, use non-slip shoes and hold onto the railing with one hand, of course.
The squat is for the entire lower body. Perform it holding a barbell resting across your shoulders, or with a dumbbell held in either hand, arms straight down by sides, palms turned toward outer thighs. In my classes, women usually start with a total of 10-16 lbs., men with 20-30 lbs. Stand with feet about a foot apart, toes slightly turned out to the sides. Keep back flat (not rounded) and head up. Smoothly bend legs to where thighs are not quite parallel to the floor and then come back up. Your rear end will stick out a bit at the bottom position. Try for 12-20 repetitions.
Use ankle weights for a large variety of effective exercises, four of which follow here. Try starting with no more than 2-4 lbs. per leg. However, don't wear ankle weights around the house or for your daily walks! That can hurt your hips and lower back. Keep weight training and aerobic exercises separate.
For the front thigh muscles and lower abdomen, lie on your back on an exercise mat or carpet, left leg bent, right leg straight. Have hands behind head, or lie propped up on forearms, as desired. Smoothly raise and lower the straight right leg. Do 12-15 lifts, then repeat with left leg. Repeat (right leg, then left leg) if desired. Keep the non-working leg bent to protect the back.
Strong back thigh muscles can help prevent knee injuries, especially in women. Place hands on a weight bench, the seat of a firm chair, or a tabletop. Stand with left leg almost straight, right leg straight and back behind the body as far as possible, toe touching the floor. Smoothly bend and then straighten the right leg, keeping it back as far as possible. Do 12-15 lifts right, then 12-15 left. Repeat if desired. Afterwards, sit on floor with legs wide apart and gently lean torso over right thigh to stretch the back thigh. Hold for 15-20 counts right, then 15-20 counts left.
To work the outer thigh and hip muscles, do a standing side kick. Stand tall, gripping something like the edge of the kitchen sink with the left hand. Fairly rapidly, kick the straight right leg directly out and up to the side. Do 15-20 kicks right, then 15-20 left. Repeat.
For the inner thighs, lie on back with hands under head. Lift legs straight up, so that they're vertical and together. Keeping legs straight, perform a smooth scissors motion: apart, cross, apart, cross. Do 20-30 total, as able.