Staying flexible and healthy as you get older

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Do you often feel stiff and tight? Do you notice frequent aches and pains? There must be a good reason. “As we age, we lose fluid and flexibility in our joints and in our muscles,” says Lynn Millar, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). These effects of aging — along with conditions like arthritis, hunched over a computer for years or the repetitive motions of gardening — can make you less flexible and reduce your range of motion.

In addition to causing back pain and other everyday aches and pains, this inflexibility can make it more difficult to perform everyday tasks, such as picking up a fork that has fallen to the floor or turning your neck to look over your shoulder as you drive. That lack of flexibility also reduces your ability to participate in cardiovascular and strength exercises, says Michael Rogers, research director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University.

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Regular stretching feels good, is easy to perform and can help you stay flexible. Therefore, the ACSM recommends doing this two or three times a week, and more often if possible. Here’s how.

If you already exercise several times a week, Carol Garber, a former ACSM president and fellow, recommends adding stretches after your walk or exercise program, once the muscles have already warmed up.

Are you not feeling well? Stretching can be especially helpful in preventing injuries in people who sit, Garber says.

To find a stretching program, check your local community center or gym. But depending on your fitness, offers in these places may or may not be right for you. You can also check out stretching routines for older adults on the National Institute’s Aging YouTube channel. Another option: Ask your doctor about a physical therapist who can teach you a personalized routine. A fitness trainer can do the same.

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And if you want to combine stretching with other exercises, consider yoga or tai chi, Millar says. “These are really helpful if someone has trouble doing it alone, likes group activities, or wants something holistic with a little bit of strength, a little bit of balance, flexibility, and maybe some sanity,” she says.

While we all have different areas of tension, most people can benefit from a flexibility boost in the hamstrings, shoulders, and neck, Rogers says. These stretches, done three times on each side for 10 to 60 seconds, can loosen them up:

hamstrings: Sit on the edge of a chair and extend your right leg straight forward, heel to the floor. Keeping your back straight, lean forward and reach your right foot with your right hand. As soon as you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, stop and hold.

shoulders: While standing, hold a small towel in your right hand and throw it over your right shoulder. Reach behind your back with your left hand to grab the bottom of the towel. Pull the towel down with your left hand until you feel tension in your right shoulder and upper arm.

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Neck: Sitting with your spine straight, shoulders back and feet flat on the floor, turn your head to the side and try to stretch your chin toward your shoulder. Hold when you feel the stretch.

Thoroughly stretching your muscles can only take five to 10 minutes (although more time is better).

You’ll want to focus on one area at a time — your shoulder, for example — and stretch until you feel some tension but no pain. The general advice is to hold the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. But older adults may benefit from staying in position for up to 60 seconds, according to the ACSM. Repeat each stretch several times to get the most out of your session.

And note: If you have limited mobility or other physical issues, you can do lots of stretches from a sitting or standing position and use a stable chair to help yourself get up and down as needed.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

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