How Can I Improve My Flexibility?
Question: “I am becoming less flexible as I get older. Simple tasks such as bending over to pick up a bag of groceries have become more difficult. What can I do to improve, or at least maintain, my flexibility?”
Your situation is not unusual as most people become increasingly less flexible as they get older. The decrease in range of motion is not due simply to aging, however. Several variables can restrict movement around a joint or series of joints. Some of these factors are malleable and can be improved through stretching exercises. Others are more permanent in nature and impose fixed limits on the range-of-motion possible. Such variables include the following.
- Joint structure: Skeletal structure sets limits on flexibility in and around some joints. For example, the boney structure of your elbow determines the range-of-motion possible in that area. Short of surgery, you cannot do much about it. Ball-and-socket joints such as the hip and shoulder allow the greatest possible range-of-motion.
- Connective tissue: Flexibility is restricted in areas such as the ankle and hip by soft tissues like tendons, ligaments, facial sheaths, joint capsules and even skin. Stretching exercises can improve range-of-motion in these areas.
- Gender: Women tend to be more flexible than men across all age groups. Some of the difference is due to anatomical and physiological factors, although a portion may be attributed to the nature and extent of activities routinely performed by women and men.
- Activity levels: Physically active individuals tend to be more flexible than inactive people across all age groups. Ligaments and tendons become stiffer if they remain in a shortened (unstretched) position for extended periods of time. As the adage states, “If you don’t use it, you will lose it.”
- Age: Both women and men become less flexible with age. How much of that loss is due to lifestyle changes as opposed to the aging process is a subject for debate.
A comprehensive flexibility plan should target the major muscle-tendon groups, including the shoulders, chest, trunk, hips, quads and hamstrings. Consider the following when planning your program.
Types of stretches
Two common types of exercises used to improve flexibility are dynamic and static stretches. Dynamic stretches are generally performed prior to a workout and involve a gradual increase in the stretch as you repeatedly move parts of the body through a specific range of motion. Dynamic stretches begin with small changes in range of motion and gradually progress to larger changes in the range of motion. The movements are typically repeated a half-dozen times or more and are performed in a slow and controlled manner. An added benefit of dynamic stretching is that it increases heart rate and promotes blood flow which further prepares muscles, tendons and ligaments for a workout. Examples of dynamic stretches are jumping jacks, walking knee hugs, torso twists, arm circles, side shuffles, lunges and leg swings. Dynamic stretches are typically performed over a specified time range, typically 30 to 60 seconds.
Static stretches are generally performed after a workout when muscles and connective tissue are warm and supple. Static stretches involve a gradual and sustained extension of the target muscle to the limit of its range-of-motion and then holding that position. You should not use bouncing or bobbing movements to elongate the muscle as this action may cause injury and will likely initiate the muscle stretch reflex (see below). The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that you hold each static stretch for 10 to 30 seconds, relax, and then repeat. Older individuals may derive greater benefits by holding the stretch a bit longer, possibly 30 to 60 seconds. Examples of static stretches include the calf stretch, the sitting hamstring stretch, and the shoulder stretch.
The muscle stretch reflex
The human body contains a variety of physiological checks and balances that prevent us, at least from a physical perspective, of doing things that are not in our best interests. The built-in safeguard against over stretching is called the stretch reflex. When the body senses that muscle fibers are stretched too far or too swiftly, a nerve reflex sends a signal to the muscle to contract. In effect, the stretch reflex opposes your efforts to elongate the muscle. The reflex mechanism is stimulated by sudden changes in muscle length, a condition that can result from the pressures and strains imposed by the bobbing-type movements. The slow and steady extension characteristic of static stretch exercises inhibits firing of the stretch reflex, and as a result enables the muscle to attain greater extension during the stretch.
Intensity of stretching
How far, or how hard, to stretch—the intensity of the stretch—is also important. As a general guideline, extend the stretch to the point of mild tightness but not so far that you feel pain. If painful, release the stretch slightly. Over time, you will be able to extend the stretch farther as flexibility improves.
Frequency of stretching
Research suggests that a person should perform flexibility exercises a minimum of two or three times a week, and preferably more often, for 10 minutes or more per session to realize significant range of motion improvement. Stretching exercises can be performed prior to exercise as part of the warm-up as well as during the cool down period after a workout.
To obtain a more complete list of static and dynamic stretches, see “American College of Sports Medicine Complete Guide to Fitness and Health (2nd Edition),” published by Human Kinetics (2017). The book provides a variety of recommended stretching exercises and also identifies a few common stretches that should be avoided.