Stay Supple with Stretching

Maintain—or improve—your flexibility for optimal health as you age.

By Joan Pagano

Inevitably with time, things change. You feel a bit stiffer in the mornings; your joints are a little creaky; a glimpsed reflection in a window reveals you’re not standing as straight as you thought. Tight muscles may begin to affect your gait. If your hips and ankles are stiff, your stride becomes shorter and there is less natural bounce when walking.

Decreased flexibility may be a common aspect of aging, but it is one that you can do something about, no matter what your age. Just a few minutes of daily movement helps maintain flexibility, which in turn keeps the muscles supple and the joints mobile. It counteracts the wear and tear of everyday life, allowing you to maintain a youthful appearance and an active lifestyle. As you enhance your mobility, you increase your efficiency in all activities so that they require less effort and leave you feeling less tired.

Your ability to stretch depends on genetics as well as your daily habits. The unique structure of bones and the length of the soft tissue (muscles, tendons, and ligaments) surrounding them determine the joints’ range of movement. Some joints, like those affected by arthritis, may be “stiff” or restricted; others like those of a contortionist, “loose” or hypermobile. If your joints are stiff, do range-of motion exercises to keep them limber. If they are loose, work on strengthening the muscles around them to provide more stability.

Range-of-motion or limbering exercises keep mobility in joints that may be affected by arthritis, injury, or surgery. These types of small movements (like head, neck, and shoulder isolations) help lubricate the joints to keep them more mobile. Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage that acts as padding between the bones of the joints wears away, causing bone to rub on bone. Although the natural tendency is to minimize movement in painful joints, this can actually lead to more pain and stiffness. Similarly, after an injury or surgery, it’s important to restore normal range of motion in the joint so that you can resume routine activities of daily life.

Stretching is another type of flexibility training. Daily stretches can target specific areas throughout the body to lengthen the muscles and restore balance. Attention to form helps ensure that you get the most out of the stretch. The key is to hold a static stretch for 20 to 30 seconds—or for several deepbreathing cycles—allowing time for the muscles to lengthen. Yoga poses, like downward-facing dog and child’s pose, stretch multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which is restorative to both the body and the mind.

Stretching discharges tension and energizes the body, but it is also important for good posture. There is a natural tendency for some muscles to be short and tight, while others are prone to being long and weak. Stretching can help offset this imbalance and improve your alignment, correcting common issues like the “forward slouch.” This typical posture of aging— picture the upper back rounded, the shoulders hunched, and the head forward of the body—develops from our everyday habits. The remedy is to stretch the chest and shoulders and realign the head by strengthening the neck and back muscles.

Given the widespread benefit to our bodies of regular stretching and the flexibility that results, it’s a good idea to incorporate some type of stretching in your day. To make flexibility part of your routine, start your day with some easy limbering exercises on the side of your bed to prepare your body for the demands of the day; take advantage of small moments during the course of your day to do some brief stretches while standing at the kitchen sink or sitting at your desk; in the evening, stretch out your neck and shoulders and your arms and legs while watching TV on the couch. Make stretching a daily habit, just like brushing your teeth.


Simple Steps for Spinal Alignment

Performing these four simple exercises regularly can improve your spinal alignment.

You can even do them sitting at your desk. Repeat each move five to 10 times daily.

Lengthen the Spine.

To restore and maintain the normal curves of the spine, try this “growing” exercise:

  • Take a deep breath, filling the belly with air, and gradually lengthen the spine as you lift the top of your head to the ceiling.
  • Think of elongating through the torso, stretching the space between the ribs and the hips, and decompressing the spine.
  • Puff up the chest by drawing the air up into the chest cavity.
  • As you exhale, hold the height and stay tall.

Do A Back Extension.

The movement of arching backward opens the chest and shoulders and improves mobility in the mid- and upper back:

  • Standing or sitting, place your hands on your buttocks below your waist.
  • Take a deep breath and lengthen the torso.
  • Exhale and lift the chest up as you pull your elbows toward each other, causing the upper back to arch slightly.
  • Pause, then release back to center and repeat.

Anchor the Shoulder Blades.

When you’re in the habit of slouching, your shoulder blades slide forward and apart, exaggerating the curve of the middle back. Creating a “W” shape with your arms activates the muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades—an extremely important technique to use when doing upper-body weight training:

  • Hold your arms out to the sides, palms forward, with the elbows bent and in line with the shoulders.
  • To form a W, inhale, then squeeze the shoulder blades down and together as you let your breath out slowly.
  • Hold for two to three seconds, release, and repeat.

Realign the Head.

It is common to develop a forward head position from our daily activities. This “neck press” strengthens the muscles of the neck and upper back and realigns the head over the shoulders:

  • Put two fingers on your chin. Inhale. As you exhale use your fingers as a cue to retract your chin: move it straight back, pressing the curve out of the back of your neck.
  • Keep your chin level, being careful not to push it down.
  • Pause, release, and repeat.

Joan Pagano is the author of best-selling fitness books, including Strength Training Exercises for Women; a motivational speaker on health and fitness topics; and the owner of Joan Pagano Fitness in New York City. Former trainer to Jacqueline Onassis and Caroline Kennedy, Joan has specialized in strength training for women since 1988. She is an authority on the benefits of exercise for such women’s health issues as menopause, osteoporosis, and breast cancer, as well as strength training across the decades. For more information visit joanpaganofitness.com.