Why stretching is important as we get older
You may think of stretching as something performed only by runners or gymnasts. But we all need to stretch in order to protect our mobility and independence. “A lot of people don’t understand that stretching has to happen on a regular basis. It should be daily,” says David Nolan, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
And for a lot of older adults, maintaining mobility can be difficult. Muscles and joints weaken and range of movement deteriorates as we age. Stretching benefits include development and maintenance of strength, improving flexibility, and increased circulation and blood flow, to provide a greater quality of life and healthy aging.
Some of the benefits of stretching exercises may include:
Stretching reduces low back pain and arthritis
The causes of lower back pain in older adults is commonly a result of osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis. While both osteoarthritis and spinal stenosis are a natural part of aging and can’t directly be avoided, the resulting pain can be managed by stretching exercises. Regular stretching benefits seniors by improving flexibility, range of motion, and elasticity to relieve stiffness in the afflicted joints.
Stretching reduces the risk of falling
The risk of falling is a major concern for older adults – ages 65 and older. Research as show that regular bouts of stretching are critical to balance and stability helping prevent against falls. Improving flexibility in the hamstrings, quadriceps, and the lower back along with greater mobility in the hip joint is important in the prevention of falling in older adults.
Stretching helps improve poor posture
As we age, our body’s water content in connective tissue, such as ligaments and tendons, decreases, resulting in reduced elasticity and flexibility. The tightening of ligaments and tendons in the chest and shoulders in conjunction with years of sitting hunched over at a desk will overtime result in poor posture. Poor posture is defined by a forward head posture, rounded shoulders and upper back, and forward pressing hips. The natural S-curvature in our spine compresses. This can create pain in the lower back and between the shoulder blades.
Improving flexibility is simple with a consistent stretching regimen. This will help loosen tight ligaments, tendons, and muscles to give you a greater range of motion. (Read our article on Spine & posture techniques for Over 60s)
Stretching increases blood flow and energy levels
Dynamic stretching is a low-intensity form of stretching that utilizes movement to stretch your muscles. As opposed to static stretching, which is stretching while your body is devoid of motion. Along with lengthening your muscles, dynamic stretches will also increase circulation and nutrient flow throughout the body. Thus increasing the body’s energy levels. In older adults, increased energy is important in maintaining independence, remaining social, and overall healthy aging.
Examples of dynamic stretches are: Arm swings, Shoulder circles, Lunges, Leg swings and Half squats.
Adding stretching exercises to your workout
Staying physically active as you age is key to a better overall quality of life. Exercise helps keep our bones strong and our backs straighter, can help delay the onset of certain diseases like diabetes, relieves the pain you feel from arthritis, improves your mood and mental health, and is essential in fall prevention. It’s never too late to add physical activity into your daily routine!
If you’re already exercising on a regular basis, it’s important that you’re taking the time to properly stretch your muscles, too. Stretching will help loosen your joints by activating the fluids within them, which helps reduce damage caused by friction. Stretching will also help lengthen your muscles, and when a muscle is short or tight you’re much more susceptible to injury. Once you add stretching into your workout routine, you’ll notice the results quickly.
Tips for effective stretching
Add stretching exercises for flexibility into your workout routine by following these tips:
- Warm up before stretching. A warm up before stretching can be done easily with some light weights or a quick walk. Your muscles need to be warmed up before you start stretching to help you avoid injury.
- Take your time. Ease yourself slowly into the stretch. You should feel a mild pulling in your muscles, but it shouldn’t be painful. A stabbing pain is a sign that you’re stretching too far. If you’re new to stretching exercises, remember that it will take some time for those muscles to loosen up.
- Relax and breathe. Never hold your breath while stretching. Breathe into the movement, carefully pushing yourself a bit farther with each breath.
- Take note of your spine. Be aware of the position of your spine. Don’t let it curve too far as this can make you vulnerable to an injury. Keep your back and joints soft, never locked into position.
- No bouncing. Don’t bounce into a stretch to try to make yourself reach farther. Use steady movements instead of jerking movements to ease into the stretch, as those quicker movements can actually cause the muscles to tighten instead of loosen.
- Hold that stretch. Give yourself at least 30 seconds in each stretching position to allow enough time for the muscle to elongate. Breathe, repeat, and try to stretch slightly farther the next time.
If you are just getting started with a workout routine, adding stretching to your warmup and cooldown is essential to help alleviate the soreness that may follow exercising.
Remember, you’ll feel tension during a stretch, but you should not feel pain. If you do, there may be an injury or damage in the tissue. Stop stretching that muscle and talk to your doctor.
Where to start
With a body full of muscles, the idea of daily stretching may seem overwhelming. But Nolan says you don’t have to stretch every muscle you have. “The areas critical for mobility are in your lower extremities: your calves, your hamstrings, your hip flexors in the pelvis and quadriceps in the front of the thigh.” Stretching your shoulders, neck, and lower back is also beneficial. Aim for a program of daily stretches or at least three or four times per week.
Stretching once today won’t magically give you perfect flexibility. You’ll need to do it over time and remain committed to the process. “It may have taken you many months to get tight muscles, so you’re not going to be perfectly flexible after one or two sessions,” says physical therapist David Nolan of Massachusetts General Hospital. “It takes weeks to months to get flexible, and you’ll have to continue working on it to maintain it.”
Find a physical therapist who can assess your muscle strength and tailor a stretching program to fit your needs. If you have chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or arthritis, you’ll want to clear a new stretching regimen with your doctor before you start.
As always, before you start any new physical activity, talk to your doctor first to learn what the best plan will be for your health needs.
While you’re hear, read our article on 11 health benefits of stretching after 60
Beginner videos if you need some ideas on getting started
Quick Stretch Routine For Seniors To Do Each Morning (5-Minutes) by More Life Health
5 Stretches Seniors Should Do Everyday (15 mins) by SilverSneakers
Full-Body Gentle Stretch Routine for Seniors and Beginners (23 mins) by The Fit RV
Seated Stretches For Seniors | 8 Stretches – Every Area (11 Minutes) by More Life Health
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