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Stay Off the Floor and Tone Your Core

Sit-ups aren’t for everyone. You could tighten your abs and burn 200 calories in a half-hour session of chair yoga.

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photo collage of different chair yoga poses
Photographs by Bee Trofort-Wilson (Wardrobe Stylist: Bailey Harrs; Hair Stylist: Rachel Reid; Make Up Artist: Danielle Mitchell)
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Have you tried chair yoga? Would you like to? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Burpees. Crunches. Mountain climbers. These are just a few of the exercises you might see when you walk into an abs class and these same moves might tempt you to walk back out. These challenging exercises can be, well, hard to stomach – especially for sisters of a certain age. And if you’ve got achy joints, getting back up from the floor may feel like a workout all by itself!

Believe it or not, you can tighten your tummy without struggling through sit-ups. In fact, you can sculpt a firmer and stronger core while seated in your favorite sturdy, yet comfortable chair. In 30 minutes of chair yoga, a woman weighing about 175 pounds (the average for females 50-59, according to a 2021 study published by the National Center for Health Statistics) could burn almost 200 calories. You can do this and much more with chair yoga.

“I think there's a great misconception around movement in general, that it has to be…strenuous…to be effective,” says Mel Douglas, founder of the Black Women’s Yoga Collective. “Core strengthening or strengthening any of your muscles really is about muscle integration and alignment—things that you can do whether you're sitting, standing, or laying down.”

Meet your midsection muscles

If you need help understanding how your core muscles work, take a look at a waist trainer, shaper or girdle. The material of these support garments expands and contracts with movement. They’re comprised of overlapping layers and panels. Nature fits together your abdominal muscles in a similar fashion. The more toned these muscles are, the better they can support your movement, posture and internal organs.

Rectus abdominis is a pair of muscles located in the front of your body, stretching from your pubic bone to your ribs. These are the “six pack” ab muscles.

Transversus abdominis This is the deepest layer of abdominal muscle. It sits underneath the rectus abdominus and the obliques and runs horizontally around your abdomen, like a corset.

External oblique muscles are the outermost pair of abdominal muscles that extend down the side of your core toward your middle, attaching to the hip. They help you rotate the trunk of your body and perform other important functions.

Internal oblique muscles are located on either side of the abdomen, deeper than the external obliques and also help with trunk rotation.

Pyramidalis is a triangular vertical muscle located low in the pelvis and is important for abdominal pressure.

Many yoga poses directly engage these areas. Over time, strengthening those muscles may alter the appearance of your midsection. You might notice a difference in the fit of your clothes. But yoga—including chair yoga—can do more than help tighten your tummy.

By strengthening your core through chair yoga, you can also improve your balance and even reduce your chances of injuring yourself when lifting things around the house, Douglas says. A strong core can help prevent back pain too.

Here are some chair yoga poses that can help strengthen your core

Pro tip: A standard wooden kitchen chair or metal folding chair can work just fine for most chair yoga poses. However, you can purchase chairs specifically made for yoga. These chairs are typically made with non-slip material and can help decrease your risk of injury. Some exercisers find it helpful to search for a video demonstration when learning new moves such as these. Consult your health care provider about exercises that are appropriate for you.

Seated Cat-Cow Stretch
First, sit near the edge of your chair with your feet flat on the floor and place your hands on your thighs or knees. Inhale, pressing your belly forward, lifting your chest to the ceiling and tilting your head back. Then exhale, rounding your back toward the back of your chair dropping your gaze toward your lap. As you exhale, draw the navel inward. Repeat for 10 to 15 reps.

Chair Seated Leg Lifts, Knee Lifts & Flutter Kicks
Sit on your chair with your back straight and feet planted. Next, hold onto the sides of the chair for support as you lift one leg to hip height. Lower the leg (without touching the floor) and repeat 10 times. Switch legs. (You could also alternate legs.)

From this same seated position, you could try alternating knee lifts with your arms extended overhead.

If you’re able, you could also try lifting both legs to hip height and doing flutter kicks with your arms extended in front of you. For more of a challenge (and an aerobic boost, as you increase reps over time), try fluttering your arms, too.

Chair Boat Pose
You can modify this pose to make it as easy or as challenging as needed.

For level one, sit sideways on your chair with your feet planted and hip-width distance apart. With your back straight and your core engaged, lean back slightly. Hold for a few breaths then lift back to your original position.

For level two, you can lean back, extend your arms in front of you, and lift one knee at a time (alternating sides) with your feet flexed. To make this more challenging you could lift the knee, hold, extend the leg, lower the leg, return your foot to the floor. Repeat.

If you want even more of a challenge, try this:

Sit facing forward, so that your weight is fully supported but there is a slight gap between your back and the chair back, if possible, to allow space to lean back as you engage the core. Next, hold onto the sides of the seat as you squeeze your knees together and lift your feet off the floor, knees bent to whatever height is comfortable for you. From this position, if you can, extend your arms to the sides as you inhale. If possible, next bring your arms in front, parallel to the floor (palms facing each other) as you exhale. Inhale and open your arms out to the sides again. Hold. Exhale while you lower your feet to the floor and then melt into a forward fold (with your hands as close as they can get to your feet) to stretch out your back and any tension in your neck and shoulders.

A forward fold can also help aid in digestion.

Chair Warrior III Pose
Push your chair against a wall and then stand in front of it. Hold onto the seat for support as you lean your torso forward and lift one leg behind you. Your goal is to form a straight line from your head to your lifted heel. Keep your core engaged and make sure the foot of your standing leg is firmly planted into the floor. Return to the starting position and switch legs. Repeat for 10 reps.

Chair Plank
Planks are considered the gold standard for working your core.

Place your hands or forearms on the seat of the chair and walk your feet back. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels. Be sure to keep your core engaged and don’t let your lower back sag. Hold for 10 seconds (but do not hold your breath!). Release and repeat for 5 cycles.

With all these exercises remember to keep your core engaged the entire time.

To find more chair yoga poses and routines, Douglas recommends searching YouTube for free videos. If you’re looking for a chair yoga class, check your local community center or yoga studio. If no nearby centers offer chair yoga, request that these classes be added to the roster. You can round up some sister friends who are also interested to show that there’s demand.

Keep in mind that chair yoga is no magic potion for overnight abs. These moves alone won’t be enough to banish belly fat. You’ll need to add other forms of aerobic exercise and resistance training to your workout regimen, watch your intake of processed foods, be mindful of portion control, and try to add more protein and fiber to your diet.

Most of all, keep your eye on the prize. Even if you don’t get a six-pack like your favorite celebrity, a strong and stable core can help you maintain mobility – and your independence – as you age. Moving through day-to-day life with greater ease is a freedom you absolutely deserve. You are that prize, Sis. Not abs.

Have you tried chair yoga? Would you like to? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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