Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What happens to flexibility as we age?

As you may guess, the flexibility decreases with aging. The good news is that most of the studies show improvements in function when individuals engage in exercise programs that involve stretching exercises. Unfortunately, the studies on flexibility in the aging population aren't as complete as they are for studies of strength and endurance, but the studies do suggest that significant improvements in the range of motion of various joints (neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, and ankle) can occur when stretching exercises are prescribed. It's just that it isn't clear how much flexibility training older adults should do to maintain good range of motion, function, and health.

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Aging and Flexibility

With appropriate training, flexibility can, and should, be developed at all ages. This does not imply, however, that flexibility can be developed at the same rate by everyone. In general, the older you are, the longer it will take to develop the desired level of flexibility. Hopefully, you'll be more patient if you're older.

According to M. Alter, the main reason we become less flexible as we get older is a result of certain changes that take place in our connective tissues. As we age, our bodies gradually dehydrate to some extent. It is believed that "stretching stimulates the production or retention of lubricants between the connective tissue fibers, thus preventing the formation of adhesions". Hence, exercise can delay some of the loss of flexibility that occurs due to the aging process.

M. Alter further states that some of the physical changes attributed to aging are the following:
  • An increased amount of calcium deposits, adhesions, and cross-links in the body
  • An increase in the level of fragmentation and dehydration
  • Changes in the chemical structure of the tissues.
  • Loss of suppleness due to the replacement of muscle fibers with fatty, collagenous fibers.
This does not mean that you should give up trying to achieve flexibility if you are old or inflexible. It just means that you need to work harder, and more carefully, for a longer period of time when attempting to increase flexibility. Increases in the ability of muscle tissues and connective tissues to elongate (stretch) can be achieved at any age.

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Stretching and Flexibility as We Age

The phrase "range of motion" means the flexibility of a joint. The structures of joint and muscle tissue are elastic. As we grow older, the tissues around our joints tend to thicken. Steps should be taken to prevent them from growing tighter and more restricted. Stretching helps combat these tendencies.

How Hard?

There should be nothing hard about your stretching. This is a time to relax and enjoy! Each stretch should cause your muscle to feel comfortably stretched but not distressed. Never force any stretch and never try to stretch so far that you experience pain. Pain is a four-letter word for "stop"! When you stretch, allow the muscle to feel just slightly uncomfortable. With practice and patience, flexibility will increase.

How Long?

Taking your time, gently ease into each stretch. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Perform the stretch three times, taking a moment to rest between repetitions. Always be aware of your breathing. Don't hold your breath. Breathe naturally during each stretch.

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How Often?

To preserve your current level of flexibility, perform your stretch routine three times a week. To increase flexibility, stretch 4 or 5 days per week. A stretch and exercise program aimed at limbering the entire body will be most beneficial.

Gentleness while stretching is a must for older adults with back problems, arthritis, osteoporosis, or any condition likely to decrease the natural range of motion. Physical limitations must be respected. The use of towels or other assistive devices during stretch programs will help increase range of motion.

People with any type of medical disorder should consult with their physicians prior to physical exercise and stretching for flexibility.

Let's look at some rules to follow for safe and successful stretching:
  • If any stretch hurts or feels abnormal to you, omit it from your regimen.
  • Never bounce during any stretch. Ease into the position and hold it in a relaxed manner.
  • Do not force your joint to stretch beyond its natural range of motion.
  • Always breathe; never hold your breath!
  • Before stretching, perform a thorough warm-up lasting 10-15 minutes. No cool-down period is required after stretching.
  • Perform at least one stretch for each body section.
  • Never include controversial stretches, such as: the "hurdler's stretch" or the "plow."

It may be advantageous to select some beautiful, relaxing music that encourages a sense of quiet harmony while stretching. Choose music that creates an atmosphere of tranquility and peacefulness. Never hurry-just slow down and enjoy the moment. Stretch smoothly and breathe deeply. Relax and feel proud of yourself for taking care of your body, for you are a true miracle!

Stretching Exercises

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