The Importance of Building Core Strength… in All Facets of Life

Strengthening your body’s core muscles can yield numerous benefits, particularly later in life. But what about your spiritual core? Your intellectual core? Editor Chad Merchant finds that for the most enduring quality of life, these three cores are best fortified in tandem.

Five years ago, I wrote my first column as the Group Editor for The Expat Group. In that somewhat introspective article, I reflected on what had brought me to Malaysia back in 2008, and how it was still informing my life then and there in 2012. I wrote about the influence that American transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had had on my budding adult life when I was in college, and how I took to heart Thoreau’s clarion call for us to ‘live deliberately’.

Now it’s five years later, and I’m all too rapidly approaching the half-century mark of my own life, one which has been sometimes lived very deliberately, and one at times on which I’ve merely been along for the ride. And though I look forward to the years ahead, my body occasionally throws up tiny little reminders here and there that hey, you’re no longer 20 years old. So I’ve been reading a lot about the importance of building and maintaining strong core muscles, particularly in middle age – and beyond.

Physical core

A quick search on Google informed me that this increasingly famous ‘core’ includes such superstars as the pelvic floor muscles, transversus abdominis, multifidus, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, the diaphragm, and lest we forget, the erector spinae, notably (so I’m told) the longissimus thoracis. Yikes. Not being a musculoskeletal specialist, I had only really heard of the diaphragm, so this all wasn’t incredibly helpful without a large illustration (or a degree in anatomy and physiology). So let’s break it down: Plainly put, your core muscles serve to stabilise and strengthen your spine and pelvis, which in turn makes your whole body stronger. It also makes doing the things we take for granted in our 40s and 50s (and even more so in our 20s and 30s) – bending, walking, getting in and out of the car, negotiating stairs and inclines, keeping our balance – easier and less risky once we get into our 70s and 80s. So having a strong physical core is clearly important to a good quality of life, and that importance seems to rise dramatically as we age.

Spiritual core

But what about a spiritual core? I’ve long believed that who we are on that level is mostly determined by the time we’re adolescents, and the rest is just built on top of that, like layers of an onion. But as we get older, we accumulate plenty of layers, because strengthening the spiritual core is a lifelong pursuit.

Obviously, many people use religion to achieve this end. Many others perhaps reject specific religions, but still believe that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Some look to philosophers and their teachings. Others find their lessons in the wonders of nature.

For me, it’s been all of these at various times of my life, and sometimes it’s been none of them. It’s at times been just as plain and simple as ‘be kind to others’ or ‘leave the world a better place than you found it’. There is, of course, no one right answer, and it’s this quest – perhaps more than any other – that defines the human condition. The search for meaning and purpose, the need to know why we’re here, the desire to make ourselves better, the yearning to live rather than to simply exist. That’s the spiritual component, and if we forego nurturing and strengthening that, we forego much of our humanity.

Intellectual core

The intellectual core is a tougher nut to crack; sometimes because of our own nature and sometimes because – unlike the spiritual pursuit – there actually is only one right answer. Our own tendencies are what really get in the way, though, especially as adults. We engage liberally in things that impede learning. We like to stay in our comfort zones. We are creatures of habit. The great trait of curiosity is by no means a universal one in our species. And perhaps most egregiously, we often practice confirmation bias, tending to gravitate to things and people that validate only our own ideas and opinions, rather than challenging them. We avoid seeking and confronting different perspectives and innovative ways of thinking, and in so doing, miss out on a great opportunity to bolster our own intellectual core. Put simply, the older we get, the harder it is for us to learn. Schools these days like to talk about nurturing students to be ‘lifelong learners’ – and while that certainly sounds great, reality suggests that it’s a task far easier said than done.


For most adults, particularly those who may be juggling work and family demands (in addition to those above-mentioned basic truths of human nature that hinder active learning), there’s also an almost subconscious assessment done when we’re faced with the prospect of learning something new: What’s the benefit? Is it worth the time I’ll spend on it? It’s rare indeed for adults to actively pursue learning something just for the sheer joy of learning it, despite it being easier to do this today than ever before. (Hello, Wikipedia!) But being a lifelong learner is more than a clever marketing line: it really is a worthwhile goal. Studies suggest that, for a sustained quality of life in later years, keeping your brain active is just as important as keeping your body active.

So by all means, get on that treadmill, do those crunches, and strengthen those core muscles. I know I definitely need to. But while you’re in pursuit of a stronger physical core, never neglect the other two: your spiritual core and your intellectual core. After all, no table can stand with less than three legs.

A version of this article was originally published in The Expat magazine (April 2017) which is available online or in print via a free subscription.


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