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Strengthening the lower body can help protect hips, knees and ankles.

Our legs and buttocks house the largest muscle groups in our bodies. While each muscle has a specific assignment, they all work together to keep us moving. We need to keep those muscles strong if we want to retain our independence as we age.

Strengthening the lower body muscles preserves our hips, knees and ankle joints - three joints vulnerable to injuries, as they are used extensively in our daily living.

The largest joint in our body and also the most vulnerable joint for injuries is the knee. It is the most injured joint for all age groups, as indicated by the yearly 6-million visits to orthopedic surgeons. Ligament sprains and cartilage tears are the most common knee injuries.

One of the reasons knees are so vulnerable to injury is that the knee has much less mobility than most other joints. Because knees can bend in only one plane of motion, they have a limited tolerance for twisting or side to side motion. Locking knees when exercising or playing sports can also place knees in jeopardy; bending knees and hips will reduce pressure on knee ligaments.

"It's common for athletes to injure themselves where there is hard planting of the foot, or landing with the knee extended instead of flexed," says Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. Another reason for knee volatility is carrying too much body weight. Since the majority of our body weight is supported by the knees, excess weight will not only stress the joints, but also increase the risk for degenerative arthritis in the knees.

The knee is a joint that counts on its neighboring muscles for support, movement and stability. One of the best ways to help prevent knee injuries or to protect an already injured knee is to strengthen all the muscles surrounding the knee; strengthening muscles that support the knees will also strengthen and offer support for the back.

"Walking is not enough to help your knees. It's important to do some form of strength training" says Kataliya Palmieri, an advanced clinician in the Joint Mobility Center at the Weill-Cornell-affliated Hospital for Special Surgery.

The two major muscle groups that control and support the knee are the quadriceps (front of thighs) and the hamstrings (back of thighs), however, there are many other lower body muscles that offer their support. Meet some of those waist-on-down muscles:

Gluteus Maximus is the largest of our three gluteal muscles and covers the entire buttocks, extending down the back of the thigh. The main responsibility of this muscle, often called the glutes, is to enable you to straighten your legs from the hips. When the glutes weaken, it becomes difficult to climb stairs, pedal a bike or stand up from a sitting position. Exercise example: Do squats with toes pointed straight ahead and your weight directed back onto your heels.

Hip Flexors are located opposite the glutes. They are a group of seven muscles in front of the hips and their assignment is to help you lift your legs high. The hip flexors tend to be a tight muscle group and often need frequent stretching for balanced muscle development. Exercise example: Standing or sitting, alternate knee lifts as in marching.

Quadriceps are a group of four muscles in the front of the thigh that act together to extend and straighten the leg from the knee. According to a 2006 report from the American College of Rheumatology, stronger quadriceps help prevent the deterioration of the cartilage behind the kneecap among people who have knee osteoarthritis. Exercise example: wall squats.

Hamstrings are three muscles located directly behind the quads. They have the responsibility of bending your knees. Exercise example: lunges.

Adductors AND Abductors play an active role in helping to stabilize knees. Adductors are muscles on the inside of your thigh and abductors are muscles located high on the outer hip. When you move your leg toward the midline of the body, you are using adductor muscles and when you move legs to the side away from the midline of the body, you are using abductor muscles. Exercise example: squats with knees held together or by placing a ball between legs.

Gastrocnemius is commonly known as the calf muscle. It is considered primarily to be an ankle muscle but can act to stabilize or flex the knee. It helps you rise up on your tiptoes. Exercise example: slow heel raises on both feet, progressing to one foot.

If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning ANY exercise program. Sally Anderson, a trainer, is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Step by Step- Charlene and Jim Rillings

Char, 67, and Jim, 66, enjoy sharing their exercise together through dancing and tai chi. The St. Petersburg couple love to exercise outdoors, taking walks at Sawgrass Lake Park and Weedon Island and on the beach at Fort De Soto. Char also enjoys aerobic, strength and water aerobic classes, while Jim does cardio workouts and weight machines.

Hamstring Stretch on Ball (Char) Sitting on ball with legs forming a V, flex your feet (toes pointing upward). Keeping back long and flat, exhale as you bend forward from the hips, hands reaching toward the floor. Hold for 10 to 12 seconds, breathing normally. (Jim) Exhale as you move hands toward lower legs. Hold for 10 to 12 seconds, breathing normally, then return to center, inhaling as you sit back on ball.

Quad Stretch PlusThis stretch also strengthen hips and thighs. Using a support, stand tall with abdominals contracted. Pretend you have a hard hat on your head (helps for posture). Inhale as you bend right knee and lift foot toward buttocks. Exhale as you hold right foot with your right hand. Hold for 12 to 15 seconds, breathing normally. If this is too difficult in the beginning, try the modified version: Standing tall, bend one leg, and keeping knees side by side, have the bent lower leg parallel to floor.

Lower AND Upper Body ComboThis targets glutes, outer thighs, quads, hamstrings, shoulders, obliques and abs: (Char) Holding weights, stand with legs hip-width apart. Begin with right arm shoulder height, palm facing downward. (Jim) Lunge into left side, bringing right hand diagonally across body, reaching toward outside of left leg. Straighten leg and return to original position. Repeat eight to 10 times, then change sides.

Wall Squat strengthens quadriceps, hamstrings and buttocks. It also works on balance. With ball between lower back and wall, walk feet about 1-1/2 feet in front of hips, crossing arms in front of chest. Keeping back on ball, slide down the wall; do not allow knees to move over toes and never go beyond thighs parallel to floor. Exhale as you return to original position; repeat eight to 10 times.


Preventing knee injuries

1. Before exercising, warm up by walking or doing another low-impact activity for five to eight minutes.

2. After warming up, stretch the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. This will relieve pressure on the knee. Add stretching exercises throughout your strength workout.

3. Begin a leg-strengthening program to help maintain knee stability; never lock knees or allow knees to extend over toes. Check with your physician before beginning any exercise program.

4. Wear proper-fitting shoes. Knee problems can be caused by flat or overpronated feet (feet that turn inward). Custom-designed orthotics will help that issue.

5. If you choose to ride a bicycle, always adjust the seat for your height. You want the seat high enough so you do not feel pressure on knees while riding. When the foot is on the pedal, you should have a slight bend in the knee.

6. Avoid sudden changes in exercise intensity.

7. Maintain a healthy weight.