Several years ago, I received a phone call that no daughter wants to receive. My mom had fallen from a ladder and fractured four vertebrae in her back–one in every part of her spine. The first thing I asked the nurse who called me was whether my mom could move. The nurse assured me that not only could she move, but she had walked into the emergency room of her own accord. Now they had her flat on her back with a back board and neck brace because one of her fractures was unstable, and they were transferring her by ambulance to a regional hospital.

Later, I would learn that Mom had come back from an early morning bike ride to see a twig dangling from a tree. It bothered her enough that she wanted to trim it. According to Mom, the ladder fell out from under her, an important distinction. After she woke up from her fall, she figured out how to stand up, raked up the twigs without bending over so there would be no mess in the yard, carried the ladder to the back yard shed, took a shower, and then decided she should call her doctor. He quickly assessed that she should go to the ER, and, no, she should not drive herself there.

I packed up for who-knows-how-long and drove seven hours to the hospital where Mom had been taken. It was scary. My dad had died several years before, and I wondered how this would all play out. When I entered the hospital room, Mom was in a lot of pain, but she was sitting up, talking, and very hungry, because they hadn’t let her eat in case she needed surgery.

Several days later, we were home, complete with a back and neck brace for three months, and we started the process of figuring out the pragmatics of cooking, house care, and grocery shopping without being able to drive. Neighbors and friends generously stepped up to help.

My first hint of my mom’s strong core was when I went to mow her yard. I could barely push her mower, which was not fully self-propel. How could my 75-year-old mother do this, but I was struggling?

Many health care workers stopped by for their initial visits. One of them was a physical therapist. She had planned on giving Mom remedial core strengthening exercises, until she tested Mom’s abdominal strength. She looked at me in surprise, and then turned to Mom and said something like, “You are the poster child for core strength. You are going to recover just fine, and it’s because of how fit you are. What have you been doing?” Mom proceeded to tell her about the sit-ups (please do crunches) and push-ups she did every morning and the regular bicycling she did–Mom was disappointed she wouldn’t be able to get in her usual 1,000 miles that year. The PT and Mom shared biking stories of RAGBRAI (a ride across Iowa) and riding across Wisconsin.

My mom fractured four vertebrae in August and, although the recovery was not easy, by Thanksgiving her back brace was off and she cooked Thanksgiving dinner. Three years later, she biked 1,500 miles during the course of the year. And she planks. What?! One of the exercises the PT taught Mom was the plank, which Mom now holds for a slow 60 seconds a day. She is 78 years old.

You might not want to bike 1,500 miles, but I bet you do want to live vitally and healthfully, able to do everything your heart desires–lift heavy groceries, move furniture, or play with children and grandchildren. Once we are very old, we will want to be able to do self-care activities–sit and stand on our own, walk up steps, and bathe and toilet on our own. What will help with the activities both now and later? Core strength. So I’ve started planking. It’s not my favorite activity; in fact, I really don’t like it. But when I add a few seconds to my front plank, I think of Mom and how she recovered fully from a traumatic injury in her older years, largely because of her core strength.

What will you do this week to start building core strength?

Click here for some fantastic core exercises, put together by Jill Csillag.

The Core Counts