Although it’s commonly overlooked compared to more intense and result-driven exercises, flexibility plays an important role in allowing us to continue the independent lifestyle we enjoy.
As we get older, the physical changes that occur naturally in our bodies can keep us from doing what we love. Muscles shrink and their fibers decrease. Tendons lose their water content, making our bodies stiff and unable to tolerate stress. Unless we work to keep these parts of our body strong as we age, our flexibility will disappear.
Just like strength and endurance training, balance and flexibility exercise is just as vital to senior health and fitness. Indeed, muscle elasticity may be the most important physical quality when it comes to accomplishing day-to-day activities. Going for a long, cardio-intensive walk is good, but you’re still in trouble if you can’t bend down to tie your sneakers first. The rewards of staying limber (and the consequences if you don’t) go beyond just physical fitness goals to impact our daily lives.
Why Flexibility Matters as We Age
While maintaining your flexibility may not improve your cholesterol or help you shed a few extra pounds, it will help you stay active and free from the common ailments people associate with getting older. According to author and creator of SavvySenior.org Jim T. Miller, maintaining muscle elasticity is the underrated key to a healthy senior lifestyle. Consider the reasons:
- Accomplishing Daily Activities
From tying your shoes to reaching something on the top shelf in the kitchen, to looking over your shoulder as you back the car out of the driveway or folding laundry, flexibility allows us to accomplish our everyday tasks and pursuits. We don’t get very far if we have trouble putting on our socks in the morning.
- Good for Posture & Circulation
When our muscles are limber, our bodies can relax. It’s hard to keep good posture if our back, neck, chest and shoulder muscles are stiff and sore. Flexibility improves posture, which in turn helps to keep our spine and hips properly aligned and allows for better lung capacity and breathing, which contributes to better circulation.
- Stress & Pain Relief
Exercises for flexibility, such as yoga, tai chi or just simple stretching, are designed to help relieve stress by increasing deep breathing and loosening your muscles. Staying loose and limber also helps relieve the pain we feel when doing physical activities or experience muscle cramps. If you’re prone to the nightly Charlie horse, increasing the flexibility in your legs could help.
- Enhanced Balance
When your muscles and joints are flexible, it’s easier to keep your balance. A limber body can control its muscles and react quickly, keeping you upright even if you trip or slide. When muscles are tight, they don’t adjust easily to sudden changes of position, and the accidental trip on the stairs could very well turn into a serious fall.
- Preventing Injuries
Similarly, when you do experience a fall or other forceful impact, flexibility in the muscles and tendons surrounding your joints can determine whether or how bad of an injury you may incur. When muscles are stiff, your body won’t move as easily to brace the hit. Tendons could strain, muscles could pull and fail to protect your bones and joints. Limber muscles can be the difference between a bruise and a busted hip.
Stretch Out Your Youthful Years
According to fitness coach Eric Stevens, the loss of flexibility doesn’t have to happen as we get older. True, our joints, muscles and tendons do naturally lose elasticity with time, but we can work to get it back. Unlike strength and cardiovascular performance, flexibility doesn’t have a cap when it comes to age, but we should work to increase and maintain it before we experience an injury or start to feel stiff. These tips should help you get started:
Experts suggest completing stretching exercises at least three times a week to keep your body flexible. Stretch your muscles to the point where they feel tight, but aren’t causing you pain. If it hurts, ease up to where the pain stops and hold there. Stretching too far too fast can cause serious injuries.
- Warm Up
Just like clay or taffy, muscles stretch better when they are warm. Consider doing stretching exercises after a few minutes of light cardio or after you take a shower.
If you know you’re not as flexible as you once were, don’t expect your body to respond after just a few sessions of stretching. Your muscles take time to regain elasticity. Set realistic goals for yourself and take it slow.
- Yoga & Tai Chi
If you’d rather incorporate flexibility training into strength and balance exercises, yoga and tai chi are two great ways to combine your fitness goals. Both are slow-paced and adaptable for all ability levels.
If you’ve had a serious injury or past surgery, talk to your doctor before you try any new exercises. Even what seems like simple stretching could cause harm to an injured part of the body.
If you would like some examples of stretches and exercises to try, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggest good stretches for seniors.
Maintaining flexibility can be a simple way to ensure you remain healthy and independent for years to come. If you would like help building good fitness habits and learning new exercises, contact a local senior living community or local gym to see if they have senior-friendly fitness classes available.
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