Staying flexible and healthy as you age

Staying flexible and healthy as you age

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Do you often feel stiff and tight? Notice frequent aches and pains? There’s probably a good reason. “As we start to get older, we lose fluid and flexibility in our joints and in our muscles,” says Lynn Millar, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). These effects of aging — along with conditions such as arthritis, years of hunching over a computer or the repetitive movements of gardening — can make you less flexible and reduce your range of motion.

In addition to causing back pain and other daily aches, this inflexibility can make it harder to do everyday tasks, such as picking up a fork that has dropped to the floor or turning your neck to look over your shoulder while you’re driving. That lack of flexibility also reduces your ability to engage in cardiovascular and strength exercises, says Michael Rogers, research director for the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University.

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Regular stretching feels good, is easy to do and can go a long way in helping to keep you flexible, which is why the ACSM recommends doing it two or three times a week, and more if possible. Here’s how.

If you’re already involved in physical activity several times a week, Carol Garber, a past president and fellow of the ACSM, recommends adding in stretching after your walk or exercise program, once muscles are already warmed up.

Not feeling fit? Stretching may be especially helpful at preventing injuries in people who are sedentary, Garber says.

To find a stretching program, you can check your local community center or gym. But depending on your level of fitness, offerings at these places may or may not be right for you. You can also check out the stretching routines for older adults on the National Institute on Aging’s YouTube channel. Another option: Ask your doctor about seeing a physical therapist who can teach you a personalized routine. A fitness trainer may do the same.

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And if you would like to combine stretching with other exercises, consider yoga or tai chi, Millar says. “These are really beneficial if somebody is having problems doing it on their own, likes group activities, or wants something holistic with a little strength, a little balance, flexibility and maybe some mental health,” she says.

Although we all have different areas of tightness, most people can benefit from a flexibility boost in the hamstrings, shoulders and neck, Rogers says. These stretches, done three times on each side for 10 to 60 seconds, can loosen them up:

Hamstrings: Sit on the edge of a chair and extend your right leg straight out, heel on the floor. Keeping your back straight, lean forward and reach toward your right foot with your right hand. Once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, stop and hold.

Shoulders: While standing, hold a small towel in your right hand and throw it over your right shoulder. Reach your left hand behind your back to grab the bottom of the towel. Pull down on the towel with your left hand until you feel tension in your right shoulder and upper arm.

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Neck: While seated with your spine straight, shoulders back and feet flat on the floor, turn your head to one side, trying to stretch your chin toward your shoulder. Hold when you feel the stretch.

Giving your muscles a thorough stretch can take as little as five to 10 minutes (although more time is better).

You’ll want to focus on one area at a time — your shoulder, for example — and stretch until you feel some tension but no pain. The general advice is to then hold the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. But older adults may benefit from staying in position for up to 60 seconds, according to the ACSM. To get the most out of your session, repeat each stretch several times.

And note: If you have limited mobility or other physical issues, you can do many stretches from a seated or standing position, and use a stable chair to help yourself get up and down as needed.

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