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Exercise for Older Adults: Don't Forget to Stretch!

Image for elderly stretching article Now that you have heard about all the benefits of exercise as you age, you are ready to hit the gym or the dance floor…or at least go for a daily walk. There is only one problem: your joints do not want to cooperate. Is it too late to limber up?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, flexibility (the range of motion of a joint) decreases with age and physical inactivity. Inactivity can cause your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to get shorter over time. However, regardless of your age, you can increase your flexibility and prepare your body for activity by incorporating stretching into your daily routine. Do not forget, though, that aerobic fitness and strengthening are also important as you age. Balance-improving exercise such as tai chi may also improve well-being and reduce the risk of falling.

The Benefits of Stretching Exercises

A daily stretching routine may offer your these benefits:

  • Physical performance—Increased flexibility can make it easier and less tiring for you to do daily tasks such as lifting, bending, turning, and engaging in other repetitive movements.
  • Circulation—Stretching increases the temperature of your muscle tissue, which increases the circulation in that area. Improved circulation helps keep your tissue healthy.
  • Posture—Short, frequent stretches throughout the day can keep your muscles from getting tight. This helps you to maintain proper posture and reduce aches and pains due to tight muscles.
  • Resistance to stress-related muscle tension—By helping your muscles to relax, stretching can reduce pain associated with muscle tension.
  • Coordination and balance—Lack of flexibility can lead to loss of balance, causing falls and injuries. A regular stretching routine can help you maintain a good range of motion and prevent injuries that could lead to loss of mobility.

Stretching: How Much and How Often?

The National Institute on Aging offers these tips:

  • Mix in flexibility exercises with endurance, strength, and balance exercises to keep things interesting and fun.
  • Do each stretch 3-5 times.
  • Each stretch should be done slowly. Try to hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds before relaxing. When you repeat the stretch, try to reach further.

Safety Tips

  • Talk to your doctor before starting in a new exercise program.
  • Be cautious if you have a hip replacement. Check with your doctor before doing any kind of exercise, including stretching.
  • To avoid injury, warm up those muscles before you try to stretch them! Walking and moving your arms can help to prepare your muscles for your exercise routine.
  • While you may feel some discomfort during a stretch, you should not be in pain. If you feel that your knee joint hurts, for example, stop the stretch.
  • Stretch slowly and gently. Avoid bouncing or jerking, which can lead to injury
  • Try not to lock your joints when stretching. Instead, keep a little bend in the limb.

Stretch Those Muscles!

These exercises, from the National Institute of Aging, can help increase your flexibility when performed on a regular basis:

Hamstrings

To stretch the muscles in back of the thigh:

  1. Sit sideways on a bench or other hard surface such as two chairs placed side by side.
  2. Keep one leg stretched out on the bench, straight, toes pointing up.
  3. Keep the other leg off of the bench, with the foot flat on floor.
  4. Straighten your back.
  5. If you feel a stretch at this point, hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
  6. If you don't feel a stretch, lean forward from your hips (not your waist) until you feel stretching in the leg on the bench, keeping your back and shoulders straight.
    • Note: Omit this step if you have had a hip replacement, unless your doctor has told you that it is safe to do.
  7. Hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
  8. Repeat with the other leg.
  9. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.

Calves

To stretch the lower leg muscles in two ways—with the knee straight and the knee bent:

  1. Stand with your hands against the wall, arms outstretched and elbows straight.
  2. Keeping your left knee slightly bent, toes of your right foot slightly turned inward, step back 1-2 feet (31-61 centimeters) with the right leg, heel, and foot flat on the floor. You should feel a stretch in your calf muscle, but you shouldn't feel uncomfortable. If you don't feel a stretch, move your foot farther back until you do.
  3. Hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
  4. Bend the knee of the right leg, keep your heel and foot flat on the floor.
  5. Hold the position for another 10-30 seconds.
  6. Repeat with the left leg.
  7. Repeat 3-5 times for each leg.

Ankles

To stretch the ankle muscles:

  1. Remove your shoes. Sit toward the front edge of a chair and lean back, using pillows to support your back.
  2. Stretch your legs out in front of you.
  3. With your heels still on the floor, bend your ankles to point your feet toward you.
  4. Bend your ankles to point your feet away from you.
  5. If you don't feel the stretch, repeat with your feet slightly off the floor.
  6. Hold the position for one second.
  7. Repeat 3-5 times.

Triceps Stretch

To stretch the muscles in the back of the upper arm:

  1. Hold one end of a towel in your right hand.
  2. Raise and bend the right arm to drape the towel down back. Keep your right arm in this position, and continue holding onto the towel.
  3. Reach behind your lower back and grasp the bottom end of towel with your left hand.
  4. Climb your left hand progressively higher up the towel, which also pulls your right arm down. Continue until your hands touch, or as close to that as you can comfortably go.
  5. Reverse positions.
  6. Repeat each position 3-5 times.

Wrist Stretch

To stretch your wrist muscles:

  1. Place hands together, in praying position.
  2. Slowly raise your elbows so your arms are parallel to the floor, keeping your hands flat against each other.
  3. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds.
  4. Repeat 3-5 times.

Quadriceps

To stretch the muscles in front of the thighs:

  1. Lie on your side on the floor. Your hips should be lined up so that one is directly above the other one.
  2. Rest your head on a pillow or on your hand.
  3. Bend the knee that is on top.
  4. Reach back and grab the heel of that leg. If you can't reach your heal with your hand, loop a belt over your foot and hold the belt ends.
  5. Gently pull that leg until the front of the thigh stretches.
  6. Hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
  7. Reverse the position and repeat.
  8. Repeat 3-5 times on each side. If the back of your thigh cramps during this exercise, stretch your leg and try again more slowly.

Single Hip Rotation

To stretch the muscles of the pelvis and inner thigh:

Note: Don't do this exercise if you have had a hip replacement, unless your doctor has given you approval.

  1. Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Keep your shoulders on the floor throughout exercise.
  3. Lower one knee slowly to the side, keeping the other leg and your pelvis in place.
  4. Hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
  5. Bring your knee back up slowly.
  6. Repeat with the other knee.
  7. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.

Shoulder Rotation

To stretch the shoulder muscles:

  1. Lie flat on floor, pillow under head, legs straight. If your back bothers you, the place a rolled towel under your knees.
  2. Stretch your arms straight out to the side. Your shoulders and upper arms will remain flat on the floor throughout this exercise.
  3. Bend your elbows so that your hands are pointing toward the ceiling. Let your arms slowly roll backwards from the elbow. Stop when you feel a stretch or slight discomfort, and stop right away if you feel a pinching sensation or a sharp pain.
  4. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds.
  5. Slowly raise your arms, still bent at the elbow, to point toward the ceiling again. Then let your arms slowly roll forward, remaining bent at the elbow, to point toward your hips. Stop when you feel a stretch or slight discomfort.
  6. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds.
  7. Alternate pointing above head, then toward ceiling, then toward hips. Begin and end with the pointing-above-head position.
  8. Repeat 3-5 times.

Neck Rotation

To stretch the neck muscles:

  1. Lie on the floor with a phone book or other thick book under your head.
  2. Slowly turn your head from side to side, holding the position each time for 10-30 seconds on each side. Your head should not be tipped forward or backward, but should be in a comfortable position. You can keep your knees bent to keep your back comfortable during this exercise.
  3. Repeat 3-5 times.

Revision Information

  • American College of Sports Medicine

    http://www.acsm.org

  • National Institute on Aging

    http://www.nia.nih.gov

  • Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology

    http://www.csep.ca

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Fitness for anti-aging. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: http://www.acsm.org/access-public-information/articles/2012/01/10/fitness-for-anti-aging. Updated January 10, 2012. Accessed April 18, 2014.

  • Sample Exercises - Flexibility. National Institute on Aging website. Available at http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/exercise-physical-activity-your-everyday-guide-national-institute-aging/sample-2. Updated March 25, 2014. Accessed April 18, 2014.

  • US Department of Health and Human Services. 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Available at: http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/default.aspx. Published October 2008. Accessed April 18, 2014.