5 Benefits of Stretching for Seniors: How it Helps With Pain, Memory & More
By Ana Jones - Founder, Phlex65
As we get older, our bodies change. We lose range of motion, flexibility, and strength. Because of these changes, the risk of injury and pain also goes up. The good news is that there are many things you can do to help stay as active and independent as possible for a long time. Stretching is one of them. Virtually every athlete, dancer, or person who trains in any sport understands the importance of stretching before and after an activity to prevent injury and increase performance.
Stretching regularly has many benefits for your body at any age—especially if you are over 65. Why? Aging causes reduced mobility in all joints which can result in stiffer movement patterns, muscle weakness, and strain injuries from everyday tasks like climbing stairs or walking up a hill. All of this reduces your ability to function by causing pain and stiffness that can be managed with regular stretching activities.
What is the best way to stretch for seniors?
Seniors should use static stretching with a focus on flexibility rather than building strength. It is important to be mindful not to push muscles to the point of pain. Because as we age, the connective tissues become less elastic and more brittle, so seniors should focus on holding each stretch for about 30 seconds.
Chair exercises that can be done in the comfort of your home for 30 minutes would be a good starting point. Begin with the head, turn your neck from side to side, and slowly circle in one direction at least 3 times and the opposite direction. Bring your neck to your chin, and hold that position and look up at the ceiling and hold and repeat at least 3 times.
Arms held out to the side and rotated in small and large circles in both clockwise and anti-clock directions. Reaching up to the ceiling with both arms and bringing them down again and taking a deep breath in through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth. Sitting tall in the chair with feet flat on the ground.
Next stretch your arm out to the front and pull back on fingers one right and left hand respectively and hold it for 30 seconds on each side. Stretching your hands out in front of you, flexing your wrist up and down for 3 reps of 10 and circling the wrist, and squeezing fingers shut and open wide is good for releasing tension. Bringing arms to shoulders and flapping arms repeatedly will work the joints in the elbows and shoulders.
Twisting from the hip and grasping the arm of the chair with both hands, first the right side and then the left side, and holding that position for a minute works the torso. Moving onto the leg lifts, flexing, and pointing toes, holding your feet out, and circling legs and ankles help to strengthen your hip flexor muscles.
It is also important to include a warm-up and cool-down to each stretching session. A warm-up will increase blood flow to the muscles, preparing them for activity, while also helping to reduce risk of injury. To get the most out of your stretching session, it is helpful to use imagery, either on your own or with a partner to guide you.
Increased flexibility and mobility
Aside from helping prevent injury, increased flexibility and mobility will allow you to engage in more activities and interact with the outside world more. Keeping up with an exercise program that includes stretching can help you build the strength needed to perform activities of daily living (like getting out of a chair) while also reducing the risk of injury.
Regular stretching can also help improve your posture by strengthening the muscles in your body that help you stand upright. It can also help with balance as it improves control of movement and coordination in the body.
Holding on to the kitchen counter and squatting or lifting one heel off the floor and bringing one knee to your chest and holding it for a minute will improve your sense of balance. Each of these exercises also gives you confidence when you walk, transfer out of bed, or perform other activities around your home.
Reduced risk of injury
As we age, it is natural to experience some loss of flexibility and mobility. But if you don’t regularly stretch and work to maintain your range of motion, you can put yourself at increased risk for injury.
Regular stretching can help you increase your flexibility and improve your range of motion. Large circular motions with your arms and legs build strength. Reaching down to touch your toes in a seated position increases flexibility. Looping your fingers behind your back and holding it as high as you can gauge your flexibility. These daily stretches will build on your flexibility long-term.
This can help prevent injury when participating in everyday activities like gardening, walking, or picking items off the floor.
Improved posture & balance
The joints and connective tissues naturally become less flexible and less elastic with aging. This can cause us to lose posture and balance as we get older, which can lead to falls and injury.
Regular stretching can help you maintain flexibility and improve your posture. Sitting up tall in your chair and practicing breathing exercises or stretching out your feet and digging your heel in, leaning forward and pulling the ground back works the calves and shins. Standing on our tippy toes is a good way to strengthen the arches of your feet which we normally neglect to exercise or use. These foot exercises can help you stay active and independent and improve your balance and reduce your risk of falling.
Strengthen the musculoskeletal system
When you stretch regularly, it helps your muscles become stronger. This is important because as we age, the muscles in the body tend to get weaker.
Using tension bands or strapping 1 lbs or 5 lbs weights around your ankles and lifting them up and holding them out in front, above, and below you are great for weight bearing exercises to strengthen muscles. Stretch bands and weights can also be used for arm curls to strengthen the upper body and muscles.
Regular stretching can help you maintain the strength and function of your musculoskeletal system. This can help you do daily activities like climbing stairs or lifting heavy objects without pain. It can also help reduce the risk of injury from everyday activities.
Studies show that stretching can help improve cognitive function and memory. This is especially important for seniors as memory can be one of the first things that decline as we age.
Learning to take slow deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth regularly helps the lungs get rid of stale air, and increases oxygen flow into the body and the brain. The diaphragm learns to do its job of breathing in more oxygen to keep seniors alert or active.
This can help you stay mentally sharp as more oxygen enters the brain and help reduce memory loss or cognitive issues.
Stretching has many benefits for the body, especially as we age. It can help improve flexibility, mobility, posture, balance, strength, and cognitive function, and reduce the risk of injury.
It is important to regularly stretch to gain these benefits, holding each stretch for 30 seconds and including a warm-up and cool-down. Using imagery and music while stretching can help you get the most out of your daily exercise routines which can help prevent falls or injury.