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Core training isn't just a buzzword—it helps nurses at home and on the job

Cardio workouts aren't the only way you can lose weight.

So many aspects of a workout can help nurses stay fit for their work duties, from running to stretching to lifting weights. But one form of fitness has extra benefits: core strength training.

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Nurses encounter many of the common causes of back pain on the job described by the Mayo Clinic. In particular, nurses may exert too much force on their backs and cause injury, "such as by lifting or moving heavy objects," according to Mayo. "Repeating certain movements, especially those that involve twisting or rotating your spine, can injure your back." An inactive job or a desk job can contribute... especially if you have poor posture or sit all day in a chair with inadequate back support."

The most recent statistics drawn from Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 underline other physical issues for nurses on the job. According to that data, 51% of all injuries and illnesses to RNs resulted in sprains, strains, or tears and on average took seven off-work days for healing. Another 27.7% of lost-time cases resulted from RN back injuries.

Core strength is simply the best preventive for all of these possible injuries, and it helps nurses with their stamina and maintaining positive energy levels, too. "To think of the core's importance, think of its location," urged Robert Dothard, a professional trainer who particularly focuses on families and clients ages 35-60 at Fit Family Smyrna. "Two of the worst injuries for nurses or any adult who wants to stay fit are the shoulder, which eliminates your ability to do all upper body exercises, or the hips, which eliminate all lower body exercises. Your core muscles link your shoulder muscle groups to the ones in the hips and thighs, so that core area is vital for your body to function."

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A former trainer on "Biggest Loser" and the creator of Total Body Workout DVDs, Dothard has made core training a priority at Fit Family for more than a decade and urges nurses to focus on core strength to help them meet the physical demands of the job without courting injuries...

study from the journal Sports Health also hailed the benefits of core stability, saying "multifaceted prevention programs including core stabilization exercises appear to be effective at reducing lower extremity injury rates.... Substantial evidence exists demonstrating core muscle recruitment alterations in low back pain (LBP) patients compared with healthy controls."

To tap those benefits for yourself, either with a trainer, in a class or on your own, first focus on understanding what the core is and how it affects your every motion, Harvard Medical School urged.

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"Whether you're hitting a tennis ball or mopping the floor, the necessary motions either originate in your core, or move through it," the HMS health website explained. "Weak or inflexible core muscles can impair how well your arms and legs function. And that saps power from many of the moves you make. Properly building up your core cranks up the power. A strong core also enhances balance and stability. Thus, it can help prevent falls and injuries during sports or other activities. In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do."

And it's not only work that involves lifting, twisting or standing that becomes easier with core strength, HMS added. "Less obvious tasks like sitting at your desk for hours engage your core as well. Phone calls, typing, computer use, and similar work can make back muscles surprisingly stiff and sore, particularly if you're not strong enough to practice good posture and aren't taking sufficient breaks."

Core muscle strength comes to the rescue here, too, according to Harvard. "Weak core muscles contribute to slouching. Good posture trims your silhouette and projects confidence. More importantly, it lessens wear and tear on the spine and allows you to breathe deeply. Good posture helps you gain full benefits from the effort you put into exercising, too."

Exercises for core strength 

Yes, you'll still need aerobic exercise: Core strength training will never be a substitute for that. But the Mayo Clinic recommended combining such swimming or Zuumba classes "with exercises that strengthen and stretch your back muscles and abdomen."

A good place to start is with some of the exercises firefighters use for core conditioning. Firefighters share many job-related risks for injury and stress with nurses, and Wisconsin firefighter and training officer Aaron Zamzow recommended these exercises in Firehouse for people who want to build core strength and avoid back injuries and strengthen their spines:

Half-kneeling hip flexor stretch

"Always try to start workouts with this exercise," Firehouse recommended. "The hip flexors are a group of muscles that connect your femur (thigh bone) to your pelvis (hip bone) and lower back." Do this first, Milwaukee physical therapist Luis Rivera told Firehouse. “Tight hips inhibit your glutes from firing, which puts a lot of strain on the back,” he says. “Stretching the hip flexor helps to activate the glutes and opens the hips.”

Dead Bugs

The name is not coincidental. You will look like a dead bug flailing around, but it's important, Rivera added. "Often athletes cannot raise their arms overhead or move their hips without engaging or arching the muscles of the lower back, which places undo stress on the spine. The Dead Bug fixes these issues by teaching you to isolate movement at the hips and shoulders without moving your spine."

Glute Bridging

Don't overlook the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus when you're striving for core fitness, Rivera advised. "Individuals with weak glutes are more susceptible to back injury because the muscles of the low back must compensate. This compensation can lead to pain and injury if not addressed. Rivera explains: “The muscles of the glutes ... help control movements of the torso, pelvis, hips and legs, so it is imperative that they are working properly.”

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