When it comes to flexibility, you have to use it or you’ll lose it.
It’s a commonly accepted notion that as we age our bodies tend to wear out — we get weaker and lose muscle tone and mass, and we tend to get stiffer, losing flexibility and mobility. Stretching, especially as part of a comprehensive fitness program, can help at least slow that process.
“We don’t know if were putting the cart before the horse because it might be the lack of movement in our day-to-day activities that causes this lack of the ability to move that causes the stiffness. If you don’t move a joint it doesn’t need to be flexible,” said Neal Pire, FACSM, an exercise physiologist at H&H fitness, a medical fitness facility in Oradell, New Jersey.
“Flexibility is important because it will directly affect your mobility. And your mobility is what keeps you active, is what keeps you independent as we age,” Pire said.
It’s just as important for older adults to be active as it is for everyone else — maybe even more so. Generally speaking, most people exercise for health reasons — to maintain or lose weight, to keep disease at bay, to strengthen bones and muscles, and to feel energetic and alert. It’s no different for older adults, but the consequences of not exercising may be more pronounced for this age group.
Although stretching doesn’t count toward the minimum 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise recommended for all adults, it’s important for other reasons, including making performing the exercises that do count easier and less likely to cause injury.
“Can you picture how much more challenging it would be if the opposing muscle groups that need to lengthen as you move were tight?” Pire asked. “If you have ample flexibility or adequate range of motion across a joint, it’s easier for your muscles to move your body, to do whatever it is that you’re doing.”
Although stretching every day is ideal, if you haven’t been active for a while, try to work it in 2 to 3 days a week. It’s best to stretch after your muscles are warmed up from some light to moderate aerobic activity, such as walking.
The recommendation for most adults is to hold a stretch for 10 to 30 seconds, but there is some research showing that for older people, holding a stretch for 30 to 60 seconds has a greater benefit. However, unless you’ve spent a lot of time practicing yoga or a similar activity, 60 seconds is a long time, so start out by just doing what you can.
“My main concern always is do something, not nothing. So if I can get somebody to stretch and do it consistently . . . even if they’re only holding it for 10 to 20 seconds, I’m happy. And then we work on lengthening that time,” Pire said.
Stretching is pretty straightforward, but there are a few things to keep in mind to get the most out of it. Whatever body part you’re working on, you want to stretch it to the point of being a little tight, or causing slight discomfort, Pire said. But you don’t want to be in pain, and the discomfort you feel should only be in the muscle you’re stretching, not in the joint you’re stretching across or elsewhere in your body.
Stretch however far your body allows, then hold it as long as you can. Repeat the stretch two or three times, and stretch statically; in other words, don’t bounce.
Some stretches to try
Pire noted that something that happens to a lot of older people, especially if they have bone density issues, is they develop microfractures in their thoracic spine as bone density diminishes. This can manifest a forward curvature of the spine (kyphosis), which also results in a forward thrust of your head and rounded shoulders
Chest and shoulder stretches. To counteract this posture, find an empty corner in a room and face into it. Raise your arms to shoulder level, bending at your elbows to form 90-degree angles. Place one forearm on each wall and step into the corner to create the stretch. Keep your head up, allowing the wall to support you. Step forward for a deeper stretch.
To stretch the back of your shoulders, stand or sit up straight in a chair. Extend one arm straight out in front of you. Place your other hand on the elbow of the extended arm and pull it across your chest. Hold and repeat, then repeat on the other side.
Lower body stretches. Hamstrings are a notoriously tight part of nearly everyone’s body. To safely stretch them, sit on the edge of a sturdy chair that won’t slide. Extend one leg so it’s straight out with your heel resting on the floor. Bend the other leg at a 90 degree angle with your foot on the floor for support. With the arm on the same side as your extended leg, slowly reach for your toes. Rest the other hand on your bent knee for support. Repeat 2 to 3 times, then repeat on the other side.
To stretch your calves, stand facing a wall, about arms-length away. Place your palms on the wall at shoulder height. Bend your elbows and lean into the wall slightly, using it for support, while taking a step back with your right foot. Place your extended foot flat on the floor with your heel down, and bend your knee slightly. This move stretches your calf, Achilles tendon, and ankle. Hold and repeat 2 to 3 times, then repeat with the other leg.
Stretches for your back. Back stiffness is a common ailment. The cat–cow pose, borrowed from yoga, is an effective way to bring some movement to your back.
Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips (tabletop pose). As you inhale, round your back up toward the ceiling (cat), pulling your belly button up toward your spine, while dropping your head. As you exhale relax your belly and let it drop toward the floor (cow), while arching your spine and raising your chest and tailbone toward the ceiling. Pull your shoulders away from your ears. Alternate stretches as you breathe, focusing on making the movement fluid and loosening the spine and muscles of your back, rather than trying to stretch too far.
After the cat–cow stretch, lie flat on your belly with your legs extended behind you. Prop yourself up on your forearms with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders (similar to yoga’s sphinx pose). Your upper arms should be close to your body with your forearms extending away from you. Hands are flat on the floor. Tighten your core and gently lift your head and raise your gaze, creating a slight arch in your back. Hold and repeat several times.
From there, push back up into tabletop pose. Keep your hands flat on the floor and sit back, bending at your knees and hips (child’s pose). Relax the lower back, bringing your hips all the way back to your ankles, and resting your forehead on the floor. Keep your arms outstretched or bring them back along your sides, whichever feels best. Enjoy!
One to avoid
One exercise Pire doesn’t recommend for anyone is the classic toe touch while standing.
“It really loads the lower back,” he said. “Bottom line, it’s a high-risk stretch for a lot of people.”
But proper stretching, whether on its own or added to your workout routine, can provide many benefits that will keep you moving in the right direction.
April 08, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN