Staying still is probably the best definition of sedentarism. But is it? Because sometimes you can make a lot of effort to stay in the same position. If you have practiced isometric exercise, you will know what I’m talking about.
So, how can you work out without actually moving your muscles? Is that possible? We are not talking about electical muscle stimulation – an interesting topic too!). What I’m discussing below is isometric exercise and why is it a good choice regardless of your age and fitness goals.
Isometric exercise is a type of exercise that activates muscles without movements. It actually involves standing still in the same position and activating your muscles to hold a given pose or stance. Thus, they are low-impact compared to others, and we can see them in Pilates, yoga, and certain bodyweight exercises, such as planks.
In isometric exercise, muscles become activated and tense when you’re holding a given pose. Maintaining your pose usually requires a few seconds, sometimes one minute or more. They can be very hard to do, especially if you have unrealistic expectations. Too often happens that people think it will be a piece of cake, aim for 2 minutes straight, and end up frustrated they can’t hold it for 30 seconds. Still, this type of exercise puts less strain to the body, and it is excellent for different settings and goals.
Isometric exercise can be used to build strength. In this particular field, weightlifting can be much more effective, but isometrics are an alternative for those who can’t or do not like to lift weights. It is used in calisthenics, and when appropriately combined with other exercises and sequences, it can be a serious game changer.
Why is isometric exercise a great choice?
Isometric exercise is an interesting type of exercise, especially for those who are not recommended to engage in strenuous physical activity. It is commonly used as a form of rehabilitation therapy, to strengthen and tone muscle in older adults, and even in children who are not supposed to lift weights without professional supervision.
So, let’s take a look at the benefits of isometric exercise for everyone in the family: children, adults, and seniors.
Benefits for children
See this adorable video. It’s widely known that children should not exercise the same way as adults. Yes, they can be athletes from a very young age, and promoting exercise is great for their health. Yes, they can even lift weights with the appropriate program and professional supervision. But we need to choose their exercises very carefully.
In contrast, isometric exercise is a low-impact and very safe alternative for children. It is associated with the same, and sometimes more health benefits than exercise in general. For example, we can count in the following:
- Reduction of overweight and obesity: Applying isometric exercise on a regular basis can counter the rise in overweight and obesity we are currently seeing. It is a type of activity they can do anywhere, reduce their screen time, and improve their self-esteem.
- Reduced risk of future cardiometabolic problems: Obese children are very likely to become obese adults and undergo several cardiometabolic problems. But what if our child does not like sports? Isometric exercises are an easy alternative, and we can make it a lot of fun, too.
- Improvements in bone geometry: Bones are forming in children, and studies show that weight-bearing exercise can improve their mineral content, density, and geometry. Weightlifting can be problematic if children do not have appropriate guidance, but isometric exercise is a suitable alternative that does not require extra equipment or very careful supervision.
- Psychological improvements: According to a study in school-aged children, watching more than 2 hours of television every day is associated with lower self-esteem, a reduction of social behavior, and a decrease in academic achievement. But what can we do if our child does not like the outdoors? Isometric exercise can be another way to promote physical activity, even in children who like to stay home.
- A great exercise for children with asthma: Strenuous exercise can trigger asthmatic attacks, but low-intensity exercise is recommended for asthmatic children. It can actually reduce the number of crises or flare-ups by countering obesity.
Benefits for adults
Adults can choose from a wide variety of exercises. For active people, combining isometric exercises, cardio, and strength training can become an excellent way to achieve an excellent level of physical fitness. But if you’re not extremely active, isometric exercise can be a great way to start, and a fitting alternative to maintain your muscle tone and physical fitness.
Here’s a list of benefits we can have as adults by adopting an exercise program that includes isometric exercise:
- Cardiovascular improvements: Exercise is excellent to improve our cardiovascular health and prevent heart disease. But sometimes it is too late to adopt cardio in patients with severe cardiovascular problems. Isometric exercise can be applied in these cases because it is not strenuous activity, keeps people active, and it is less likely to trigger angina and / or other cardiovascular symptoms.
- Better management of joint pain: Isometric exercise is excellent to stretch, lubricate joints, and improve musculoskeletal diseases. People with joint pain can benefit from this type of exercise, strengthening the body and improving bone density. And those who do not suffer from joint pain may also find significant benefit by reducing the risk of osteoporosis, arthritis, and other diseases later in life.
- Dealing with stress: Exercise can be a therapy to improve mood, deal with stress, and enhance our cognitive performance. But sometimes we do not have much time to go to the gym and lack the equipment to exercise at home. Isometric exercise can be a good way to start, especially if we try other bodyweight exercises and calisthenics progressions.
- Other mental health benefits: Depression and anxiety can be significantly reduced with exercise. There’s also a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. But if you’re not an active individual, any modification can be beneficial, as little as it may seem. Isometric exercise can be excellent to obtain the muscle tone and resistance we need if we want to start adopting a more active lifestyle.
Go here for a somewhat less charming video : )
Benefits for seniors
Seniors are often recommended to use isometric exercises. Actually, yoga and similar stretching poses are very popular because they feature low-impact exercise we can do almost anywhere. The benefits for seniors are very interesting to note, as you can see below:
- More tolerance to physical activity: It is common to see seniors slowly reducing their physical activity levels and their tolerance to physical activity. This decrease is often accompanied by muscle wasting. The main benefit of isometric exercise is a maintenance of muscle mass, which allows older adults to maintain and slowly improve their activity tolerance.
- Improved balance and reduction of falls: Isometric exercise often activates core muscles, which are essential to maintain our balance. This exercise also strengthens the lower extremities and can significantly reduce their risk of falling.
- More independence in their daily living: By improving balance and increasing the tolerance to activity, older adults maintain or improve their independence in their daily living. This may also contribute to their self-esteem and overall mood.
- Improved bone density: This type of exercise has been included in several programs to prevent osteoporosis in older adults. It is actually very beneficial, and has a low-impact because it only works with bodyweight, even though you can add some additional weight if you see appropriate, and according to each case.
- Pain reduction and management: By increasing blood flow and lubrication to the articulations, isometric exercise can improve pain symptoms associated to the musculoskeletal system. It is also useful for pain management in general, especially because the experience of pain can be modified by our psychological state, which is significantly improved by exercising regularly.
- Cardiovascular improvements: This exercise is sometimes the only type of exercise an older adult can do, especially if they suffer from cardiovascular problems or have fragile health. Similar to other types of exercise, it is associated with improvements in blood pressure, heart function, and a better control of sugar and blood lipids.
Recommendations to build your own program
If you’re interested in the benefits and want to build your own isometric exercise program, there’s a few things you need to know.
First, note that there are two types of isometric exercise. They are:
- Yielding isometrics: It is basically holding the same position for a given time. It involves using free weight or your own bodyweight, and the usual time to hold the position is 20 to 60 seconds. The classical example is planks, which involves holding your torso straight while your bodyweight rests on the forearms and the tip of your toes. But you can also do a handstand or hold a pair of dumbbells overhead until you feel the burn on your shoulders.
- Overcoming isometrics: This type of isometrics involves pushing against an object that is never going to move. The classical example is pushing against the wall. But it can be done with a gym machine if you set a high weight you know you won’t be able to move. If you do this type of exercise, the recommended timing is up to 10 seconds, and then repeat after resting.
It is important to leave aside unrealistic expectations if you’re trying this type of exercise for the first time. Even if you consider yourself strong and resistant in other types of exercise, you might find yourself wobbling a bit and struggling to hold the same position for over a minute. So, remember that it takes time to achieve a longer hold, and the trick is not giving up – keep trying.
Not everybody has body control to execute isometrics perfectly. And that’s exactly why this is a great exercise, even for active people. Because it will slowly improve body control and the connection between mind and body, which is sometimes very difficult to achieve.
Practice makes perfect so, do not stop trying and if you can’t hold the position for more than 30 seconds, that’s fine. You’re not alone and won’t be the first one to progress slowly to a better control of your body as your muscles learn to recruit more motor units.