A loss of flexibility may not seem like a big deal as we age. After all, it’s no longer necessary to do the kinds of athletic moves we did when we were younger. But flexibility is the secret sauce that enables us to move safely and easily, and the way to stay limber is to stretch. “People don’t always realize how important stretching is to avoiding injury and disability,” says Elissa Huber-Anderson, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Flexibility declines as the years go by because the muscles get stiffer. And if you don’t stretch them, the muscles will shorten. “A shortened muscle does not contract as well as a muscle at its designed length,” explains Huber-Anderson. Calling on a shortened muscle for activity puts you at risk for muscle damage, strains, and joint pain.
Shortened muscles also increase your risk for falling and make it harder to do activities that require flexibility, such as climbing stairs or reaching for a cup in a kitchen cabinet. “Warning signs that it’s becoming a problem would be having difficulty putting on your shoes and socks or tucking in the back of your shirt,” says Huber-Anderson.
When you stretch a muscle, you extend the tissue to its full length. If you hold that tension long enough, the muscle will be longer once it relaxes again. “Stretching your muscle is similar to stretching an elastic band,” says Huber-Anderson. “The elastic’s resting length becomes longer.”
The more often you stretch your muscles, the longer and more flexible they’ll become. As a result, you’ll
- increase your range of motion
- reduce your risk for muscle and joint injury
- reduce joint and back pain
- improve your balance, thus reducing your risk of falling
- improve your posture.
It’s a good idea to speak with your doctor before you start a stretching program, especially if you have chronic conditions that affect your muscles and joints, such as arthritis or Parkinson’s disease.
Your doctor will likely refer you to a physical therapist, who can evaluate your muscle health and tailor a stretching program to your needs. If you are healthy, you may be able to begin with an evaluation at a gym or YMCA.
An overall stretching program will focus on the calves, the hamstrings, the hip flexors in the pelvis, the quadriceps in the front of the thigh, and the muscles of the shoulders, neck, and lower back. Aim for a program of stretching every day or at least three or four times per week.
Types of stretches
It’s crucial to warm up the muscles before you stretch them. That means getting blood and oxygen to the tissue to make it more pliable and amenable to change. If you don’t warm up, a stretch can damage the muscle fibers.
One way to warm up is dynamic stretching. “This is when you move a joint through its available range of motion repeatedly, without holding a position,” says Huber-Anderson. Types of dynamic stretching include rolling your shoulders, lifting your knees, and sweeping your arms out to the sides and up to the ceiling repeatedly. Huber-Anderson recommends two to five minutes of dynamic stretching.
Then you’ll be ready for the types of stretches that will help you regain flexibility, known as static stretching. These stretches are held for 10 to 30 seconds. Don’t bounce—that can cause injury.
Note: An aerobic or weight-training workout can also prepare the muscles for static stretching. However, static stretching should not be performed before a workout, when the muscles aren’t ready.