Stay flexible and healthy as you age

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Do you often feel stiff and tight? Notice frequent aches and pains? There may be a good reason. “As we begin to age, our joints and muscles lose fluidity and flexibility,” says Lynn Miller of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). These effects of aging—combined with conditions like arthritis, years of hunching over a computer, or the repetitive motions of gardening—can leave you less flexible and your range of motion reduced.

In addition to causing back pain And other everyday pains, this inflexibility makes it difficult to do everyday tasks, like picking up a fork that’s dropped on the floor while you’re driving or looking over your shoulder at your neck. That lack of flexibility also reduces your ability to engage in cardio and strength training, says Michael Rogers, director of research at Wichita State University’s Center for Physical Activity and Aging.

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Regular stretching feels good, is easy to do, and helps keep you flexible, which is why ACSM recommends doing it two or three times a week, and more if possible. Here’s how.

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

Not feeling fit? Stretching is especially helpful for sedentary people to prevent injuries, Garber says.

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

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If you want to combine stretching with other exercises, consider yoga or tai chi, Miller says. “These are really useful if someone has trouble doing it on their own, wants group activities, or wants something holistic with a little bit of strength, a little bit of balance, flexibility and some mental toughness,” she says.

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

Femurs: Sitting on the edge of a chair, extend your right leg straight, heel on the floor. Keeping your back straight, lean forward and reach towards your right foot with your right hand. Once 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 your left hand behind your back to grab the bottom of the towel. Pull the towel down with your left arm until you feel tension in your right shoulder and upper arm.

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

It may take five to 10 minutes to fully stretch your muscles (though longer is better).

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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. A general suggestion is to stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. But according to the ACSM, older adults can benefit from holding the position for up to 60 seconds. Repeat each stretch several times to get the most out of your session.

Also Note: If you have limited mobility or other physical issues, you can perform many stretches from a seated or standing position, and use a stable chair to get up and down as needed.

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