The 4 Best Stretches to Keep You Young
BY: Stacey Colino
Most people trying to get in shape know the importance of aerobics and strength training. But many forget an important part of the fitness equation: flexibility. Flexibility “translates into better muscle function, better range of motion and decreased muscle soreness after exercise,” explains Maurice Williams, who has a master’s degree in exercise physiology, is a master trainer at the Bethesda Sport and Health Club in Maryland and is the owner of Move Well Fitness in Washington, D.C.
Flexibility also has an important ripple effect on agility, balance, coordination and other abilities that affect everyday life. In short, the less flexible you are, the greater your risk of getting injured -- whether you’re exercising or simply performing ordinary activities.
Why Flexibility Matters as You Get Older
Maintaining flexibility is especially important as we get older, since “muscles lose their elasticity as we age, similar to how we begin to lose muscle mass slowly after age 35,” explains Jay Blahnik, a certified personal trainer, group exercise instructor, and author of Full-body Flexibility. In addition, people tend to sit more and move less as they get older, notes Blahnik, which contributes to increased muscle stiffness.
Fortunately, new research shows that it’s relatively easy to improve flexibility. In one study, researchers from Brazil, Portugal and the U.S. found that when previously sedentary women did 16 weeks of stretching exercises, their flexibility improved by more than 30 percent.
The Best Stretches to Maintain Flexibility
To maintain flexibility at any age, try the following stretching workout developed by Williams, which targets the tightest muscles throughout your body. To avoid injury, perform each stretch gently and slowly to the point of mild discomfort -- but not pain. Hold each stretch for 20 to 60 seconds.
1. Calf Stretch
Stand facing a wall and place your hands flat against the wall at shoulder level. Place your right foot in front of the wall and move your left foot back so your left heel is 8 to 15 inches behind the right. While keeping your back flat and your left leg straight, bend your right knee and gently lean toward the wall while pushing your left heel into the floor until you feel a stretch in the left calf. Switch sides.
2. Hamstring Stretch
Lie on your back with both legs straight and flat on the floor. Squeeze the muscles in your right thigh (this will allow the muscles in the back of the right leg to relax), then lift your right leg straight up in the air until you feel slight discomfort in the back of the leg. Next, bring the right leg slightly toward the midline of your body (near your navel). Point your toes toward the ceiling to increase the stretch to your lateral hamstrings; flex your foot to stretch your calf muscle. Switch sides.
3. Hip Flexor Stretch
Get into a kneeling position with your left knee and shin flat on the floor and your right leg bent at a 90-degree angle with your right foot flat on the floor. Squeeze the muscles on the left side of your butt and shift your upper body forward until you feel a slight stretch in the left front hip. Next, raise your left arm straight up in the air, and then lean to the right until you feel a further stretch in the left side of your front hip. Switch sides.
4. Chest Stretch
Face the walls in a corner of the room, and place your right foot a few inches away from the wall and your left foot a few inches behind your right heel. Bend both elbows 90 degrees, and then place your palms and forearms against each adjacent wall (so your upper arms are parallel to the floor). While pulling your stomach in and keeping the shoulders relaxed and your chin tucked toward your neck, lean forward slightly until you feel mild tension in the chest.
The next time you work out, don’t give stretching short shrift. Maintaining your flexibility will keep your body agile and add a youthful spring to your step at any age.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.