Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series.
In our first two columns on senior fitness, we addressed cardiovascular conditioning and resistance training. Now we tie it all together with flexibility and mobility.
The elasticity of our tissues naturally decreases as we age, which impairs both flexibility and range of motion. However, a lot of research suggests that much of this is due to inactivity. Stretching and mobility exercises can effectively increase range of motion and flexibility, making them an important part of our fitness program for older adults.
With mobilizing exercises, the emphasis is on movement in the joints rather than stretching the muscles. Mobility exercises consist of active and controlled movements performed fluidly and consistently, whereas stretching to improve flexibility involves assuming a position and holding it for 10 to 30 seconds to elongate the muscle.
Mobility exercises aid in loosening up and lubricating the joints, allowing them to move more freely and smoothly while still improving flexibility in the muscle. While mobility is important for everyone, it’s even more so for seniors, particularly those with arthritis. Arthritis hinders a person’s ability to move the joints fully, and impaired range of motion in turn lessens a person’s ability to perform daily activities.
For optimal results, mobility exercises should be performed in conjunction with stretches to improve flexibility. Stretching is specifically the process of elongating the muscles. Benefits include prevention of injuries, more ease performing daily activities, improved posture and reduced discomfort after workouts. When performing stretches, muscles that are most frequently used in normal activities and during training are the primary focus — in other words, the major muscle groups.
Current American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for flexibility are as follows:
1. Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds.
2. Perform 2-4 reps per stretch until a cumulative total of 60 seconds is reached.
3. When the muscle loosens or “releases,” slowly stretch a little further.
4. Stretch only to the point of mild tension, not pain.
5. Stretches are best performed when the muscle is warm.
6. Flexibility should be done at least 2-3 days a week.
To put it all together, it is ideal to do mobilization exercises as part of the warmup before resistance, cardiovascular or flexibility training. Flexibility exercises are ideally to be performed after workouts or mobility exercises if stretching is the workout focus. For example, a mobility and flexibility session could go as follows: Spend a couple of minutes on range-of-motion exercises to loosen joints about to be used, five minutes on light cardio like walking or stationary biking, and then go into the stretching exercises.
Here are some sample mobility and stretching exercises to help get you started. Please note this is not an all-inclusive list, and more exercises may be required for the best results. For more info, please visit the website listed below.
Perform one set of 10 repetitions of the following exercises, keeping your movement continuous and smooth.
Arm circles: In a standing position, begin with your arms parallel to the floor, out to the side with your palms facing up. Begin making small circles with your arms doing 10 repetitions, going first forward and then backwards. Repeat for a second set, but performing bigger circles (approximately waist-to-shoulder height) for the same repetitions.
Leg swings: Stand facing sideways by a wall for balance. Steady yourself by placing the hand closest to the wall against it. Maintain an upright posture and begin swinging your leg that’s closest to the wall back and forth as if you were kicking a ball. Swing your leg only high enough in front of you until you feel a slight stretch in the back of your leg. Repeat on the opposite leg. After one set of each, now face the wall and place both hands against it. Step one leg back slightly for support, and sweep the front leg side to side like a pendulum away from and then across the midline of your body. Swing your leg just high enough to feel a slight stretch in the inner thigh. Perform one set on each side.
Active low back: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor with your arms directly out to your sides. Now “actively” let your legs rock side to side toward the floor without your opposite shoulder coming off the ground and until a slight stretch is felt in the lower back. Repeat for 10 repetitions on each side.
Guidelines: Inhale through the nose deeply before each stretch and exhale through the mouth while moving into a stretch. Continue breathing while holding the stretch. Remember to breathe. When you feel the muscle release or “ease up,” slowly take the stretch to the next point of resistance. Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds, performing 2-4 sets each or until you reach 60 total seconds per stretch.
Standing calf stretch: Begin by facing a wall and placing both hands on it. Stand in a split stance with both feet flat on the ground, feet pointing straight toward the wall. Gently shift your weight forward onto your front leg, keeping your back heel on the ground and not allowing it to rotate. Hold once you feel the stretch in your calf. Then repeat on the opposite side. To stretch lower on the calf, add a slight bend to the back leg using the same method described above.
Doorway stretch: Begin in a standing position with your body just inside the doorway and your arms against either side of the wall. Slowly begin to lean through the doorway more until you feel a stretch along your chest and shoulders, and then hold. Your hand position can be varied from chest level to head level to stretch different areas of the chest. The focus should be on the tightest area.
Seated hip stretch: Begin by sitting on a chair and placing one leg just above the knee into a “Figure 4” position. This may require assistance with your arms to get the leg positioned correctly. Once positioned, maintain a tall posture; this may be all that you need for an adequate stretch if you are overly tight or just starting out. If more stretch is required, gently lean your chest toward your shin for more stretch. Hold and then repeat on the opposite side.
Jason Wanlass, the owner of Champion Fitness Training in Meridian, has more than 15 years’ experience in the fitness industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or championfit.net.