A strong midsection doesn’t always look like washboard abs.

Working on core muscles can guard against injuries and back pain and help you stay mobile as you get older, preaches Bill Gvoich, an exercise specialist who focuses on improving quality of life.

“The body works as a unit, but the core is the strongest part,” says Gvoich, director of the medical wellness program Rxercise at Spectrum Fitness and Medical Wellness Centers.

The muscles of the core — the deep abdominal area, lower back and hips — help keep the back straight and the body stable. They help with every movement from walking to getting up from a chair, and neglecting these muscles can lead to various aches and pains, Gvoich says.

“It helps all the other muscles perform,” he says.

Workout videos and fitness magazines may promote the look of rock-hard abs, but that’s not what a healthy core looks like, says Gvoich. The most common core exercise — the crunch — only works superficial stomach muscles, he says, and doesn’t help people perform better in their daily lives.

“The idea in core work is to try and use your bodies like in everyday activities,” he says. “Core work prepares you for everyday fitness.”

Maintaining a strong trunk can pay dividends later in life. At 65, Gvoich says your body doesn’t have to fail with age. Older bodies begin to fail because of disuse.

“Core work enables you to perform any function demanded by your daily routine, whether it be lifting an object, moving furniture, playing with your grandkids,” he says.

Core muscle workouts won’t keep you at the gym night and day. A few minutes of exercise each week can keep your mid-section strong.

A study published in last month’s Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that volunteers who worked out their core muscles once a week gained the same amount of strength as those who performed the same exercises two or three times as often.

Gvoich agrees and often advises clients to focus on the core for a few minutes once or twice a week. “You don’t have to train every day,” Gvoich says. “If you train the core properly, it’s very strenuous.”

Overworking the core can lead to injuries, including tears in the deep abdominal muscles.

“The intensity’s high when you do core work,” he says, “so you need more rest, more recovery.”