As people age, they might notice their muscles growing stiffer and sorer, making it more difficult to do the everyday tasks they did when they were younger.
That stiff, achy feeling is your muscles saying you need to stretch. Just as athletes loosen up before and after vigorous exercise or activity, seniors need to stretch to improve their posture, mobility, flexibility, blood flow and balance, as well as relieve pain and stiffness.
“Tight muscles often lead to poor posture, which then contributes to pain and difficulty in performing simple tasks," said Jason Clinton, personal trainer for Franciscan Health Fitness Centers. "The lack of flexibility also is a major contributor to poor balance, which is a major concern for many older adults who might be prone to falling.”
Starting a stretching program doesn’t mean spending hours at the gym or health center. De Ann Mago, wellness coordinator at Hartsfield Village in Munster, said seniors should try to stretch their major muscles groups at least 10 minutes two days a week, holding each stretch exercise for about 30 seconds. The stretching should be preceded by a five-to-10-minute warmup of moving around or going for a walk.
The best time to stretch is as flexible as you’ll be afterwards. Let’s face it: There is no bad time to do it.
“Upon waking up is a great time to stretch, after you’ve gathered yourself,” Clinton said. “Depending on the quality or the positioning of your sleep, you might feel a little sore in certain areas, and it will be best to address those as soon as possible. Also, the increased blood flow and circulation achieved through stretching gives the body energy and prepares you for the day.
“Before going to sleep is another great time for a gentle stretch to prepare our body for rest,” he said. “If it’s been a long and stressful day, there might be a lot of tension built in your muscles. So it is best to release that tension so you can have restful sleep.
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“Before any exercise or moderate-to-strenuous physical activity is another great time for a more dynamic type of stretching to prepare your body for the task. And after exercise it’s great to stretch in order to cool the body down and promote flexibility and blood circulation in order to recover properly.”
Mago added: “The goal with stretching is to create a balance of flexibility in the front and back of your body as well as both sides. Stretching will help you remain loose and ease the weight of everyday stresses in life.”
Clinton breaks stretching into three types: static, dynamic and ballistic. The latter are bouncing types popular with athletes and are not recommended for seniors.
Static exercises involve holding a limb or the whole body in a stretched position for a specific amount of time and are best if done after exercise, after rising in the morning or before going to bed. Dynamic stretches are movement-based, such as swinging an arm or leg back and forth or in circles. These also are good before exercising, after getting up in the morning and before bed.
Mago said seniors should take a deep breath and slowly exhale as they stretch, hold each stretch for 30 seconds, and stretch only until they feel the tension in the muscle and not to the point of pain. She agreed with Clinton that bouncing exercises are not advised because of the increased risk of injury.
Before starting a stretching or exercise regimen, Mago recommends consulting with your doctor. Those with previous injuries should check with their physical therapist to make sure the stretches will not cause further injury.