DEAR DOCTOR K:
At my last appointment, my doctor noticed that my movements have become stiffer. He suggested that I do some stretching exercises daily. Is there anything I should know before I start? I’m in my 80s, and I don’t want to hurt myself.
Our bodies become less flexible as the years roll by. Inflexibility puts a crimp in daily acts, making it harder to walk, raise your arms or turn your head while backing up the car. It undermines balance, too, which can cause life-altering falls. Stretching can help.
You’ll make the best gains if you stretch frequently — all or most days of the week. At the very least, stretch two or three times a week.
The following tips will help protect your muscles and joints while ensuring that you gain flexibility:
WARM UP FIRST. Muscles stretch more easily when warm. Dynamic stretches — a golf swing is a good example — take specific muscles and joints through a full range of motion. Dynamic stretches can warm you up for static stretches, which involve holding a position that stretches a muscle. (I’ve put photos and descriptions of several dynamic stretches at the end of this post.) Moist heat packs or a warm shower also help warm up your muscles.
In my experience, this advice is most important with the arms and shoulders. I’ve had quite a number of patients who started to do strength training with their arms. However, they did not first swing their arms to put their shoulders through a full range of motion, loosening up the muscles and the soft tissues inside the shoulder joints. As a result, the strength training caused a shoulder injury, such as a torn rotator cuff.
FEEL NO PAIN. Stretch only to the point of mild tension, never to the point of pain. If a stretch hurts, stop immediately. Then gently try the same motion again. With time and practice, your flexibility will improve.
PAY ATTENTION TO GOOD FORM. Good form translates to better gains in flexibility and less likelihood of injury when stretching tight muscles.
WORK TO KEEP YOUR FLEXIBILITY IN BALANCE. You’ll notice that one side of your body often is tighter than the other. Work on balancing this over time.
BREATHE. Breathe comfortably while stretching, or use yoga breathing. Yoga breathing is relaxing and meditative. Try practicing this beginner yoga breathing technique so you can apply it while holding your stretches:
- Sit or lie down comfortably, resting your hands below your navel.
- Tune in to the way you breathe. Inhale and exhale naturally through your nose for a few minutes, noticing the slight rise and fall of your hand.
- Start to count silently forward (one, two, three …), then backward (… three, two, one), as you breathe in and out.
- Gradually make each exhalation twice as long as each inhalation. Focus on breathing slowly and smoothly.
Stretching should be part of every exercise program, along with aerobic exercise, strength training and (for some) balance exercises.
This routine will help you limber up for any sport and can serve as a warm-up. To see the complete sequence, go to www.health.harvard.edu/dynamic-stretches.
1. Shoulder rolls
Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart and arms at your sides. Roll your shoulders up, back, and down. Your thumbs point forward as you start the move. Palms point forward, elbows slightly bent, as you finish each shoulder roll.
2. Overhead reach
Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Reach toward the ceiling with your right arm, while shifting your weight from your right foot to your left foot and tapping the toes of the right foot. Repeat on the left.
3. Torso rotation with a reach
Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Reach toward the left wall with your right arm and then the right wall with your left arm, while shifting your weight with each change of direction. Tap your toes with each shift.
4. Hamstring curls
Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart. Alternately bring your right foot, then your left foot, toward your buttocks. Press your arms backward as you do so.
5. Shallow side lunges
Stand up straight with your feet in a wide stance, toes pointing forward. Alternate shallow side lunges to the right and the left, hinging forward at the hip and bringing both hands to your upper thigh on the lunge.
6. Knee lifts
Stand up straight, bringing your feet together. Lift your right knee and then your left knee, touching both hands to the knee being lifted. For a more challenging dynamic stretch, lift your knee high enough to grasp the top of your shin with your hands and pull your leg gently in toward your body, then release it.
7. Arm sweeps
Stand up straight with your feet together. As you inhale, sweep your arms out to the sides and up toward the ceiling. As you exhale, sweep your arms down to your sides.