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Stretching for 50+



By Dr. Karl Knopf

Have you ever woken up stiff and sore, or found that your shoelaces are a little farther away than they used to be, or you need help getting your dress zipper pulled up? These are the little signs that your flexibility is decreasing.

Grab the skin on the back of your hand and hold it for a moment. Does it spring right back? As we age, we lose elasticity in our skin and connective tissue. The effects of adaptive shortening of our muscles (when a muscle gets overly tight from too much work), poor body mechanics, and the misuse, disuse and abuse of our muscles and joints contribute to making us look and feel older than our years.

What Is Flexibility?

Flexibility is the range of motion (ROM) around a joint and is specific to each joint. Being able to touch your toes, for instance, doesn't mean your shoulder joint is flexible. Flexibility is influenced by many factors, two of which we have little control over: gender (women are generally more flexible than men) and the anatomical shape of our bones and how they form to make a joint. However, we can significantly improve our flexibility by stretching regularly, which this book will help you to do.

Flexibility appears to peak, in most joints, for males around age 24 and females somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30. After that, flexibility starts to decline. While flexibility and the ability to stay flexible generally declines with age, studies have found that individuals who follow a progressive and regular stretching program are able to delay and even reverse this degeneration. I really believe that our actual age has less to do with aging than how we live and treat our bodies.

The type of physical activity that we participate in can make our muscles tight. Basically, the more muscular a person is, the more inflexible they are. When the same muscles are used over and over again, they become stiffer. Many times we overuse, misuse and/or abuse our bodies in work or even play, which can lead to soft tissue injuries or even osteoarthritis. Joseph Pilates, the creator of Pilates, said, "The stronger the strong muscles get, the weaker the weak muscles become." This imbalance sets us up for injury, which is why stretching is so important. Overworking muscles can make us inflexible if we don't stretch, but being too sedentary may contribute to making us inflexible as well.

Importance of Flexibility

Flexibility is considered an important aspect of a total body fitness program. Unfortunately, we often neglect this part of our workout in favor of aerobics and strength training; most of us who want to look and be fit often overlook stretching in lieu of a few more minutes on the exercise cycle or a few more repetitions with the weights. If we do stretch, it is just a quick series of bouncing toe touches or a few windmills. Very often, improper stretching causes more harm than good.

As we age, our ability to maintain independence through functional mobility is of utmost importance. Flexibility of our muscles and joints dictates our ability to perform our daily activities and avoid injury. Proper flexibility plays a significant part in how we stand, how we walk and even our ability to maintain balance. Balance, in its various guises, is one key to successful aging. This includes keeping your mind balanced with mental stimulation, keeping your center of gravity balanced so you don,t fall, and keeping your body balanced by strengthening weak muscles and stretching tight muscles.

Benefits of stretching

Many of us over 50 years of age often complain of stiffness. A comprehensive stretching program will help us release muscle tension and soreness, as well as reduce the risk of injury. Just spending a few minutes a day to stretch will assist in preventing soft tissue trauma such as muscle strains and ligament injuries.

Enhanced flexibility also fosters greater body awareness, which leads to an improved connection between the mind and the body. A good relationship between the mind and our muscles allows us a better ability to move our joints within their natural ranges of motion. Keep in mind that the more efficient your movements are, the more easily daily tasks can be performed. Overly tight muscles can restrict full motion in and around a joint. This tightness can limit everything from your tennis serve to walking.

Generally, poor flexibility and decreased joint range can be restored more easily if addressed early on, before it becomes a chronic problem. The longer the inflexibility exists, the more difficult it is to restore and the more likely it will become permanent. When muscles are flexible, joints can align themselves in the biomechanical manner in which they were designed. This results in improvement in everything from our ability to move, our posture and just being able to breathe more completely.

It is easy to understand why flexibility training is shortchanged. Unlike cardiovascular training that improves our heart function and assists in weight control, or strength training that improves our appearance, fosters bone density and may even improve functional fitness, stretching just seems to be a perfunctory duty. While stretching may not reduce long-term health risks, it does improve posture and our quality of life.

How to stretch

When stretching, always progress slowly and gently. You are unique so don,t compete with anyone else or even yourself. Some days you will be pliable and some days you will be as stiff as a board-respect that fact and take that into consideration when stretching. Whenever you are developing a stretching routine, always evaluate the benefits versus risk of each stretch. Not every stretch is right for everyone. Treat the selection of stretches in this book as a menu and pick only those that "feel" good to you. Two hours after stretching, you should not feel worse than when you started.

Listen to your body and foster body wisdom. Make your flexibility program an integrated mind-body experience. Turn your interests inward when you stretch. Reflex and relax. If your mind is uptight, it will be hard to relax your body. Some people enjoy listening to soft music while performing the stretch-and-relax portion of the program. If something hurts, stop immediately; consult your physician for unusual or continuous pain.

Be mindful of your movements. Move slowly between positions of lying down, sitting or standing-don't overestimate your body's capacity to exercise. However, don't underestimate it, either. Remember, your body is designed for movement, but let it adapt slowly and gradually.

Breathe fully while stretching. We often forget the importance that breathing has on health. Just think how women use breathing to assist in delivering a baby. Most of us take shallow breaths rather than deep full breaths. Teach yourself to breathe slowly and deeply in through your nose and exhale slowly through your lips. You will know if you are breathing correctly if your belly expands. Pattern yourself after the way a baby breathes. If you notice your ribs expanding, you are employing the wrong set of breathing muscles. Breathing fully improves the quality of a stretch. An effective method to stretch a tight muscle is to inhale first and exhale into the stretch. If you are tight in a certain muscle group, after reaching a comfortable distance, hold that position for a moment, take in a deep breath and exhale and reach a little farther. This is called the "hold/relax" method of stretching and relaxing.

Remember to stretch opposing muscle groups equally in order to keep your body balanced. Our body is designed with opposing muscles. For example, you have a muscle that brings your hand to your mouth as well as an opposing muscle that takes it in the opposite direction. So if you do a muscle activity that brings your shoulders forward, do a stretch to prevent that from happening. Stretch your tight muscles and strengthen your weak ones.

To foster your mind-body connection, try to associate your body with the targeted muscle groups identified when stretching. The chart below will assist you in knowing where you should "feel" the stretch.

Stretching Tips

The following are good rules of thumb for keeping your body safe while you strive to improve its function.

1. Warm It Up . Always increase the temperature of the muscles before stretching. Think of your muscles as taffy. Imagine trying to stretch cold taffy: it would be difficult and snap. It is the same thing for your muscles. Now imagine stretching hot taffy: it would be pliable and easy to stretch. Again your muscles respond in a similar manner. If you try to stretch a cold muscle, you are at a greater risk of injury. That is why a warm bath or light walk before you stretch is a good idea. Take time to warm up then stretch-your body will thank you later.

2. Think Functional. Stretch those joints that you need in everyday life, for example, keeping your shoulders flexible so that you can reach the cereal box easily. You don't have to be able to tie yourself into knots, but you want to be able to perform your daily activities without undue discomfort. Stay within your comfort zone, don't ever force a move!

3. Keep It Balanced. If, for example, you do an exercise that tightens your chest muscles, spend time stretching those chest muscles.

4. Timing Is Everything. After your muscles are warmed up, try to perform each stretch 2 to 5 times and gradually try to hold each stretch 15 to 30 seconds. If 30 seconds feels okay, progress up to holding the stretch for 1 minute. No universal rule exists as to how long to hold a stretch-listen to your body!

5. Specificity of Training. Flexibility is specific to each joint. Try to stretch all the major joints of your body then focus on your particularly tight areas.

6. Do It Right. It is safer and more effective to go slow. Sustained stretches are superior to fast stretches. Bouncing, or stretching ballistically, does not increase flexibility but actually causes the stretched muscle to contract and shorten, which may induce strain or microtears of the muscle fibers.

7. "No Pain, No Gain" Is Insane. Do not stretch to the point of pain. Mild discomfort or tension is ok, but pain is not! Remember to breathe. Proper stretching should not cause pain.

8. Every Day Is Different. Many factors influence your ability to stretch. Be patient and respect these factors.

9. Individuality. Flexibility varies from day to day and from person to person; don't compete with yourself or anybody else. This is your time to savor the moment.

10. Remember the 2-Hour Rule. If you feel worse two hours after stretching, you overdid it. Next time don,t do so many or reach so far.


Excerpted from Stretching for 50+: A Customized Program for Increasing Flexibility, Avoiding Injury and Enjoying an Active Lifestyle by Dr. Karl Knopf. Copyright © 2004 Ulysses Press. Excerpted by arrangement with Ulysses Press . All rights reserved. $13.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-377-2542 or click here.

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