Recently, near the end of one of my classes, I recited to my students the following quote– If you are in your fifties, you need to stretch five days a week. If you are in your sixties, six days a week. And if you are in your seventies or older, seven days a week. I can’t recall where I heard this phrase, but I use it often because it has such an impact. Afterwards, I always get a lot of questions and comments. And protests!
Stretching five, six or seven days a week! Really?
Many of my students are retired or semi-retired, and have time to attend Pilates classes as well as fit in long daily walks, (or runs), biking, swimming, weight training etc. etc. In other words, they are already doing plenty of exercise. But here is the rub: the more exercise you do, the stronger you get. And the stronger you get, the more stiffness is produced in the body; thus, the more you need to stretch. It just isn’t fair. It’s almost as if your body penalizes you for being active.
What causes our muscles to shorten? Everything we do and don’t do. Muscles stiffen up with exercise because muscle fibres expand and contract whenever we move. Injuries can result in muscle imbalances as our bodies try to compensate either intentionally or unconsciously for damaged or sore fibres, joints or body parts. But even everyday sedentary activities such as sitting and standing can cause muscles to shorten over time. Why is this a problem? Muscles can become too long or too short. Muscle imbalances distort posture and alignment. Tight muscles influence the movement of the low back, pelvis, and shoulder area and can cause lower and upper body strain and pain.
Stretching can help to correct changes resulting from injuries. And it stimulates lightness and ease of movement. Especially vital for seniors, but also for younger people.
When I used to be a Pilates instructor in the Athletics Department at University of Toronto, I taught a noon hour fitness class to professors and students; sometimes athletes and P. E. students attended as well. Often the strongest of them, such as hockey players or weightlifters, had the stiffest bodies and were way less agile than older adults who took dance, Pilates, yoga, or stretch classes. Sometimes these young athletes would come to me to explain why they had missed classes after suffering injuries or strains in their sports. When I asked them if they did stretching, most of them shrugged this off. Some revealed that their trainers and coaches didn’t always explain the reasoning behind stretching, nor did they monitor that part of the workout. After a long run or an intense game, one can understand why athletes might be ready to call it a day, and if they do stretch, they may rush to finish as quickly as possible.
Static stretching versus dynamic stretching
I myself have never been a great fan of stretching. I especially disliked static stretching: when you put tension on a certain muscle and hold this tension for period of time. I, like many people, tend to hurry through these stretches instead of holding them for the suggested 30 to 60 seconds. Why? People can get discouraged by how tight their muscles really are.
Depending on our particular bodies stretching can hurt, or feel awkward or uncomfortable. Some of us find hanging out for such a long time in one position boring. It may put unfamiliar pressure on knees, necks, wrists, and/or low backs. Also challenging for older adults is that static stretches take a degree of co-ordination and stability which is not always appropriate for everyone. There is also a psychological component to stretching. In next week’s blog we will discuss the psychology of stretching, and how personality and judgement come into play.
One of the reasons I embraced the Pilates Method is that so many of the exercises have stretching and strengthening components integrated into the same exercise. This is much more functional, and a key reason why Pilates is particularly beneficial for aging bodies. Pilates consists of dynamic stretches used throughout the workout. They include movements which mimic the movements you do in everyday life, as well as your workout moves. For example, a hamstring stretch, done with a resistance band draped across the back of the foot, can be made much more dynamic by lowering the leg and lifting it back into a brief stretch. The repetition of slow controlled movements warms and prepares the body for more challenging moves.
Older bodies need both static and dynamic stretching. From the moment we open our eyes and inch out of bed, achiness can be felt. Some people manage tender and tight areas with gentle stretching, even while still in bed. There is no reason why stretching can’t be broken down to first thing in the morning, a few minutes in the middle of the day, after a workout, and a few moves before bed. Regular stretching promotes circulations, increases range of motion and relaxation, and may help you sleep better.
It is important for the body to be warm before you start stretching. To ensure that stretches are safe, make them gradual. Start with an easy range of motion where you feel a mild tension. Breathe normally and with the dynamic stretches, and hold them for least 30 seconds if possible. Do not jerk or bounce the body into place and be aware of your alignment during each stretch. Avoid stretching if there is acute inflammation in the region and whenever you feel pain. Again, bear in mind that static stretches take more coordination and stability, and may not be suitable for everyone.
In this blog is a full body stretch video of 20 minutes that includes both dynamic and static stretches. I have included a short warm up as part of the workout. Some days you may find you only use half of it—that’s okay. Other days you may go longer. After you finish the video you might add in your own favorite stretches, or those given to you by your physio for your particular body needs.
In next week’s blog we will focus on the psychology of stretching and on the advantages of using a large ball to help with both dynamic and static stretches.