Show of hands: who can no longer touch your toes? How about reaching back to zip up your dress? Low back pain, anyone? If this sounds like you, you could have a problem with decreased flexibility. Flexibility decreases naturally as we age because muscles, tendons and ligaments stiffen and lose elasticity, but you don't have to lose the ability to manage your daily activities. Maintaining and even improving your flexibility is possible at any age with just a few exercises done regularly.
A good flexibility workout includes stretches for all the major muscle groups to help you maintain a full range of motion at each joint. To keep your stretches safe and to get the most effective flexibility workout, follow these four easy tips:
Stretch Your Muscles When They're Already Warm. Warm muscles are more elastic than cold muscles, so you're more likely to get a deeper stretch and less likely to injure yourself if you start your stretches when your core temperature is raised and your muscles are warm. A great time to stretch is right after your aerobic or resistance workout. If you just want to stretch, be sure to walk, jog or do some light calisthenics first to warm up.
Stretch Just to the Point of Tension. Stretching should never cause pain. Stretch the muscles just until you feel a slightly uncomfortable tension, then breathe and try to relax the tension you've just created. After you've held the stretch for 15-30 seconds, you should be able to go just a little bit deeper. Always back off the stretch if you feel any pain.
Bouncing is Bad. Jerky, uncontrolled ballistic movements are a recipe for injury. A good stretch creates a sensation of slow, gentle lengthening in the muscles and connective tissues. A ballistic stretch can take a muscle beyond its elastic limit, leaving you with an injured, weakened muscle.
Stretch Every Time You Work Out. As with all your fitness habits, stretching works best if you do it moderately and consistently. A few minutes devoted to stretching every day will yield you the improved flexibility and mobility you need to enjoy your life.
You can't control all the factors that influence flexibility, but inactivity and disuse are factors that you can influence. You'll find that whatever your age and no matter how stiff you are when you begin, a regular flexibility program will help you move better and feel better.
(photo credit: Witold Fitz-Simon)