Flexible Equals Functional
As we get older, we experience decreases in flexibility due to connective tissue changes, mechanical stress, diseases such as arthritis, and reduced levels of activity. Higher levels of activity mean greater range-of-motion at the joints, and thus we are better able to perform our daily activities, such as walking, bending, and reaching, without much trouble. Another reason we need to keep our flexibility levels high as we get older is that people who aren’t flexible generally do not fall well. That is to say, that someone who is not flexible will tend to stiffen up, tighten their muscles, and try to brace themselves when thrown off-balance. This strategy tends to lead to more serious falls.
One way to help prevent some of the decline associated with decreased flexibility is to begin with some key stretches. When we test the flexibility levels of older adults, we look at a few areas that will predict how well a person is likely to function in his or her daily life. We look at range-of-motion in the hamstrings and lower back, in the shoulder girdle, in the ankles, as well as rotation at the trunk. By incorporating the following stretches for these areas, you will improve your range-of-motion and flexibility in some of the most important areas involved in daily functioning and prevention of falls:
Swimmer’s stretch: This stretch is for your chest and shoulder girdle. To begin, stand tall, with good posture. Bring your arms behind you and lock your fingers behind your back, keeping your elbows straight. You should feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders. To increase the stretch, lift your arms backward.
Torso rotation: To begin, stand at arm’s length in front of a wall. Place both hands against the wall, shoulder width apart, keeping your elbows straight. Keeping both knees straight and your feet planted firmly on the floor, slowly lean toward the ground, bending from the hips. Keeping your knees and elbows straight, imagine you are pushing backwards with your buttocks. Then cross one arm under the other, slowly rotating your trunk in the direction of the outstretched arm, to get a nice stretch through the side and trunk. Relax your neck and let your head hang towards the floor. Repeat with the other side.
Calf stretch: For this simple stretch, sand close to a wall. Place the bottom of one foot up on the wall, with your heel on the floor. Next, lean forward until you feel a stretch in your calf. Repeat with the other leg.
Hamstring stretch: Sit on the edge of a chair with both feet on the ground and your knees bent. Next, straighten one leg, and let your heel rest on the floor in front of you. Slowly lean forward from the hips, keeping your head up, until you feel a stretch along the back of your thigh (hamstring. ) Avoid slumping your back or bending your knee. Repeat with the other leg.
Please consult a medical professional before starting this or any other exercise program. This article does not constitute medical advice.
Kate Maliha, MA (HKin) has a Master’s degree in Human Kinetics and has conducted aging research at the University of British Columbia. She is the owner of Love Your Age (www.LoveYourAge.ca), a fitness company specializing in the exercise needs of seniors.