Overcoming the many aches and pains that come with living a long and active life can’t be achieved simply by luck.
As we age, we lose muscle mass and our muscles become tighter and less flexible, especially if they’re not exercised well. Add to that poor posture, injury and diseases such as osteoarthritis, and muscles can fall prey to inflammation, spasms and misalignments. Tight muscles get tighter, and weak muscles get weaker. The secret to successful aging: Stay flexible.
Many older adults I meet don’t see the importance of flexibility work until they are hunched over and in constant pain, looking and feeling older than their years.
In addition, I meet people who don’t think that stretching is beneficial—and find it outright boring—and believe that they’ll get more benefit by spending their time doing cardio and resistance exercises. The truth is that daily stretching is as important as regular aerobic exercise (five days a week) and weight training (two to three times a week).
It’s easy to sneak stretching into your life. Simply incorporate stretches into your normal routine or while working at your desk…watching TV…or between sips of tea while you read. But stay safe…
Warm up your muscles before you stretch by walking around for a few minutes first.
Don’t bounce through stretches. Instead, hold steady, extending slightly on the outbreath, but push only as far as comfortable.
Hold stretches for at least 30 seconds or as tolerated, not to one minute unless otherwise noted for individual stretches below.
You’re unlikely to notice immediate changes in your flexibility and range of motion, but if you keep up with daily stretching, you’ll notice subtle changes. It will be easier to bend over and tie your shoelaces…you’ll feel less stiff when you get out of bed in the morning…and you’ll have an easier time getting in and out of the car.
The following are effective but simple exercises that can improve posture, prevent injuries and target the most common sites of aches and pains…
Neck: The Turtle
This exercise reverses aches associated with sitting in front of a computer for hours a day and pushing your head forward. You can do it standing or sitting. Just be sure to keep your neck and back in alignment. The focus of the exercise is to pull the head back, which stretches the neck muscles.
1. Pretend you’re holding an apple under your chin, or keep your chin parallel to the floor. Inhale deeply.
2. Exhale through your lips while pushing your chin forward.
3. Inhale through your nose, and slowly return your head to the neutral position you started with. Repeat as many times as you like to loosen up your neck.
Shoulders: The Zipper
This exercise loosens the shoulder muscles. You can do it standing or sitting. As you become more flexible, you can eliminate the strap and try to grab your fingertips instead.
1. Hold a strap in your right hand, and raise your arm above your head. Bring your right hand down behind your head. Grab the end of the strap with your left hand.
2. Raise your right hand up as high as is comfortable, lifting the left hand along with it. Hold. Perform two times on each side.
3. Pull your left hand down to also bring your right hand down. Hold. Perform two times on each side.
4. Switch sides and repeat.
Lower Back: Seated Knee to Chest
This exercise stretches the lower back and gluteus maximus muscles and has been shown to improve blood flow and relieve muscle tension.
Sit with proper posture in a stable chair, and place your feet on the floor…or lie on the floor. Clasp both hands beneath your left leg.
Bring your left knee toward your chest. Hold, feeling the stretch in the gluteal region.
Release the knee, switch sides, and repeat.
Standing Hip Flexor STRETCHING
Sitting for much of the day, as a lot of us do, can lead to tight hip flexors—the muscles that support the hip joints. To loosen them up, stand behind a sturdy chair with your hands on the back of it. Slide your right leg back a comfortable distance. Gently tuck your tailbone under and press your hips forward while keeping your rear heel down. When you can feel the stretch in your upper leg/hip region, hold.
Do two more times. Then do three repetitions on the other side.
Legs: Seated Hamstring Massage
The hamstrings—the areas on the back side of the thighs that connect to both the hips and the knees—are prone to tightening up and are common areas of injury and pain. This exercise massages the area to boost blood flow and calm muscle tension.
Sit in a sturdy chair, and place a foam roller under one thigh…or, if you prefer, lie on the floor. Slowly and gently roll and press your leg along the roller. Hold the roller there for five to 30 seconds. If you notice a particularly tense area, return to it. Repeat with the other leg.
Wrists: Seated Wrist Stretch
With all of the computer work and driving we do, our hands and wrists are prone to tightening up and cramping. This exercise targets both the wrists and the forearms.
1. Sit in a chair, and rest your forearms on your thighs with your wrists dangling just beyond your knees. Make loose fists with your hands, and slowly lift your knuckles toward the ceiling. Hold.
2. Lower your knuckles slowly toward the floor. Hold.
Repeat this exercise as many times as feels comfortable.
Feet: Arch Rocks
Many people have trouble with foot cramping, stiffness and tightness as they age. This exercise helps to loosen the arches to relieve that discomfort.
1. Sit in a chair with both feet on a foam roller.
2. Slowly roll your feet forward and then back to massage the bottom of your feet. If you feel particular areas of tension, apply additional pressure and concentrate on those areas.
Hands: V-W Stretch
This exercise targets the hands and fingers and can be helpful for wrist strain. While the instructions are for sitting, it also can be done standing.
1. Sit with proper posture in a stable chair. Rest your hands on your thighs, palms facing down. Squeeze all your fingers together.
2. Separate one finger at a time, starting with the little finger, then the ring finger, until you’ve separated all your fingers. Squeeze your fingers together, and repeat.
To increase the challenge: Hold your arms straight out in front of you. Instead of just separating your fingers, try to make a V and W with them. To make a V: Spread your little finger and ring finger away from your index finger and middle finger. To make a W: Put your ring finger and middle finger together and separate the little finger and index finger from the group.