Being flexible means more than just touching your toes or doing the splits. It also means you can move your body and do everyday tasks like tying shoelaces, getting out of bed and carrying groceries without discomfort, pain or restriction.
However, as we age, we lose a small amount of our flexibility. Experts agree that it increases the risk of injury, interferes with our ability to perform daily activities with ease, and can contribute to a decline in overall quality of life.
But what causes changes in flexibility as we age, and are there things we can do to preserve and improve it? Here’s what you need to know, experts say.
Flexibility, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, refers to the ability of soft tissues (such as muscles, ligaments, and tendons) to move and stretch seamlessly throughout a full range of motion. Ideally, you can do all of this without causing pain or limitation, Kemli Philip, M.D., M.D. and Rehabilitation at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
“This means that soft tissues, such as muscles, are free to stretch and contract, like a new rubber band out of the box,” says Dr Philip. Simply put, flexibility is how far you can move your muscles and joints in any direction.
However, multiple factors can affect your flexibility, says Tyler Detmer, PT, DPT, an orthopedic physical therapist at Washington University in St. Louis. Muscle length, neuromuscular control factors (how well your brain controls your muscles), individual anatomy and unique body structure and how different body tissues work together are just a few. Age, gender, activity level or injury may also come into play.
“When most people think of flexibility, they think of being able to reach the ground with their arms or pull their arms behind their torso. Being flexible means much more than this and can have a significant impact on functionality throughout our daily lives,” says Detmer.
According to Dr. Philip, while flexibility refers to how well a muscle can stretch, mobility refers to how well a joint can move through its full range of motion. You may have flexible hamstrings, but it’s good joint mobility that allows you to touch your toes, climb stairs or get out of a chair without any problems.
Detmer adds that mobility involves your ability to actively control your body or joint through your full range of motion. The key difference between flexibility and mobility is “active body control”.
Although you may be flexible through a particular movement, such as during passive stretching (where you stay in one position for a certain amount of time), you may still have trouble performing the same movement on your own.
“One common example of this would be when someone has a hamstring strain while lying on their back,” he says. “After a few minutes of stretching, they will see a short-term improvement in their flexibility, which may allow them to bend down to tie their shoes or pick up objects from the floor.”
On the other hand, mobility would be an individual’s ability to perform these movements at all times, regardless of when they are stretched.
In general, flexibility refers to how stretchable your muscles and soft tissues are, while mobility refers to how well your joints move when you’re active. Both are critical to your overall physical health and performance.
Maintaining flexibility, especially as we age, is a critical aspect of overall physical health and well-being, Detmer says. By allowing your joints to move more freely and your muscles to stretch further, good flexibility makes everyday activities and tasks easier, such as turning your head while driving, bending over to tie shoelaces, carrying groceries or reaching for objects.
Dr. Philip points out that inadequate flexibility can lead to poor mobility, which, over time, can increase the risk of developing chronic musculoskeletal or spinal pain.
“These functional limitations can limit independence with activities that ultimately provide meaning, such as gardening or cooking, and can even be associated with the development of mood disorders such as anxiety or depression,” adds Dr. Philip.
Flexibility also plays a key role in injury prevention, says Dr. Philip. When your body can move in its natural range, it is better equipped to handle sudden movements or stressors without strain or damage. If your shoulder can’t go through the full range of raising your arm overhead, trying to fit your carry-on in flight puts you at greater risk of injury or muscle strain.
One of the more common injuries that result from poor flexibility is lower back pain, Detmer says, often caused by stiff leg muscles that pull the lower back into abnormal positions during movement.
While a consistent flexibility program won’t “100 percent prevent pain and reduce the risk of injury, it can significantly reduce the likelihood and severity of pain and problems with our functional activities,” he says.
Why flexibility deteriorates with age
One primary factor why flexibility declines with age is a decrease in physical activity, especially exercises that focus on stretching and strengthening, says Dr. Philip.
Changes in our lifestyle and habits, often accompanied by age-related health conditions, can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle. This lack of physical activity can encourage muscle shortening, leading to reduced flexibility and limitations in range of motion or joint mobility, she adds.
Dr. Malachi McHugh, director of research at NISMAT, Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, tells LIVESTRONG.com that aging itself also has a direct impact on muscle and joint structures.
As we age, we lose muscle mass and become weaker. As part of this process, McHugh explains, our muscles become shorter, and shorter muscles reduce our functional range of motion.
“So as we age and move less, we’ll lose muscle mass and mobility. The available range of motion at a joint or set of joints will change based on the demands placed on them,” says McHugh. “Add to that the loss of muscle mass that is inevitable with age, and you have difficulty reaching down to tie your shoelaces or trim your toenails.”
Other factors that can affect flexibility as we age are changes in the very structure of muscles and joints due to inflammatory conditions like arthritis, Dr. Philip adds. “These structural or inflammatory changes can affect the muscle’s ability to stretch passively.”
4 ways to preserve and improve flexibility as you age
There are things you can do to maintain or improve flexibility in later years, Detmer says.
“The more often we move our joints through their range of motion, the better we can maintain our flexibility and mobility,” adds Detmer. “It takes consistency to create these changes in flexibility, but just because we’re older doesn’t stop us from improving.”
It’s important to remember that promoting flexibility and mobility as we age will look different for each individual depending on their impairments or medical conditions, says Dr. Philip.
“You can be proactive by reaching out to a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist or your primary care physician to oversee a focused physical therapy program,” she adds. “This physiatrist-led approach can enable older people to maintain their flexibility, mobility and overall functional independence and physical well-being.”
Here are the habits experts recommend you keep working on to preserve and improve flexibility as you age.
One thing people can do to preserve and improve their flexibility is to stretch regularly for a few minutes a day, especially at the beginning and end of an exercise program, says Dr. Philip. Keep in mind that improving flexibility doesn’t happen overnight, but is the result of regular and consistent stretching over time.
The two most common types of stretching she recommends that have been shown to be effective in increasing flexibility are static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching involves stretching that you hold in place, while dynamic stretching is an active movement in which the joints and muscles go through a full range of motion.
“Static stretching, or holding a position for a period of time, should be followed by dynamic stretching, where the joints go through their range of motion in repetition,” says Dr. Philip. “This can include exercises like head spins, leg swings, hip circles or lunges.”
Detmer adds that there are other exercises you can focus on that will target flexibility, function and movement:
“This is not an exclusive list and it should be done appropriately, it should not be painful,” he adds. “Start easy and through a comfortable range of motion and try to move further and further as your body allows with improvements over weeks and months.”
If you notice any problems with movement or exercise, consult your doctor or physical therapist for individual guidance.
2. Avoid long sitting
Another way to maintain flexibility is to avoid sitting for too long. When you sit for several hours, your muscles, especially those in your lower back, hips and legs, are in a shortened position. When there is prolonged muscle shortening, it can lead to a loss of flexibility and therefore limitations in mobility and an increased risk of muscle imbalance and discomfort, says Dr. Philip.
Sitting for long periods of time can also lead to early muscle fatigue, weakened core stabilizers and tight hip flexors, according to Yale Medicine, which can increase stress on the lower back and reduce spinal flexibility.
Try to incorporate short breaks from sitting into your daily routine by standing up, stretching, going for a walk, parking further away or choosing to take the stairs. These small but frequent activities can help counteract some of the negative effects of prolonged sitting.
If you’re trying to improve your flexibility, it’s important to stay physically active and incorporate some strength-training exercises into your routine, says Dr. Philip. Movement and strength training in general helps build and maintain muscle mass because it encourages full range of motion in the joints. This can help prevent stiffness and ensure that your muscles and tissues remain supple and flexible.
You can increase joint stability and strength by doing these strength exercises several times a week to stimulate muscle and bone growth:
Dr. Philip also suggests incorporating balance movements such as standing on one foot or one heel, incorporating daily walks, taking up dancing or swimming, or marching in place during a short commercial break.
All of these activities can help build endurance, improve mobility and promote overall movement. And remember: Maintaining “consistency and pace” is key, she says.
The last thing experts recommend for maintaining and increasing flexibility as you age is foam rolling, which is a myofascial release technique. Foam rolling can also be used to relieve muscle tightness, pain and inflammation, especially if it’s related to injury or exercise, and can help you improve your range of motion, says Dr. Philip.
“A foam roller can help with stretching, increase blood flow and loosen tight muscle groups, directly improving flexibility,” she adds.
It is important to note that while foam rolling can be a valuable tool for increasing flexibility, it should be used in conjunction with other flexibility exercises and practices.
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