Increasing Flexibility to Combat Age
We purchase skin care systems, go to the gym, take Yoga class or Tai Chi, eat right, drink water, perhaps take supplements… all to combat the aging process and feel good. But, do we stretch to increase flexibility and maintain posture? Do we stretch to combat age?
And this is when I have to take a moment to mention Yoga, because this is the word that comes to people’s minds when they think about increasing flexibility.
Yoga has a curriculum (with multiple styles) and it is a learned skill lead by an instructor who is certified in Yoga. There are positions that both stretch a muscle and stabilize a joint; but, Yoga is a lifestyle too, not just a method used to increase flexibility. Yoga encourages breathing and being mindful, and this increases the quality of your life (oxygen and a calm mind = better life).
I encourage anyone to start a program like Yoga, or Pilates, or any program that gets you moving (consult your physician before starting any exercise program).
But, what if you're not into that? Then what?
Small actions, over time, create big and lasting results.
When I think in terms of increasing flexibility to combat the aging process, I am thinking in smaller terms. I am not thinking about what you do in a Yoga class, a dance class, or a martial arts class. I am thinking about what you can do daily that can help you increase your body’s flexibility, and maintain it. I am thinking in terms of normal and healthy range of motion (ROM).
Normal and healthy ROM is required to be, and remain, physically independent. Walking, stepping up and going down stairs, reaching for a plate, closing or opening a door, reaching over the head, or reaching down to pick up a child or a bag or groceries, all require a level of flexibility. The fact is that our bodies require a level of flexibility to function properly.
Side note: I mention “normal and healthy” ROM because there are hyper-flexible people in the world of dance, martial arts, circus, and some sports. Some of these artists and athletes display poses on their social media that promote overstretching, and these poses usually involve a prop. There is evidence that overstretching, over time, may injure joints, nerves, and soft tissue. Healthy ROM is what we are going for as we age.
What is Flexibility?
I typed, “what is flexibility” into the Google search bar, and the definitions that appeared at the top of the page read as follows: flexibility is the ability to be easily modified, bending easily without breaking, willingness to change. See a pattern? Flexibility permits action, and the action should be comfortable and effortless.
Ever bend over to pick up something you dropped, and hear yourself moan? Does your breath become shallow and do you require someone, or an object (like a counter top), to get back up from a bent position?
Sometimes it’s not about strength. Sometimes, it’s about flexibility, and flexibility is an integrated process. You cannot move one part of your body without another part of your body changing. Being super flexible in the hamstrings does not automatically mean your back can move with ease. Sometimes, increasing flexibility in one or two areas of the body makes the biggest difference overall.
Range of Motion
So, let’s talk about ROM. Range of motion is the angle (measured movement) of any joint. That measured movement engages muscles, tendons, and ligaments within its action. The action is caused by a signal, sent by the brain, down the spinal cord and to the nerves that extend beyond the vertebrae associated the that portion of your body, which connects the movement to intention (or your thought). Example: “I want to pick up that pencil”, and the arm reaches out and the fingers grip the pencil. This is the basic, stripped-down version of this action that results in a joint carrying out a specific ROM that will get the job done.
Each joint in your body has its own range of motion measurement, which has been documented (PTAs, and PTs use this chart to measure progress during rehabilitation). The tool used to measure ROM is called a goniometer, and anyone who has had rotator cuff surgery, or rehabilitation of any joint, has probably seen this tool at some point during their rehabilitation to measure their progress. There are also very talented PTs, and PTAs out there who know, by sight, what ROM looks like on a healthy joint, without this tool.
I'm Stiff Because I am Old...
Because flexibility isn’t something that all people actively seek to achieve or maintain, people tend to think that we just “stiffen up” over time, and that this stiffening is a normal part of the aging process. But, it isn’t.
Age does not automatically create stiffness; chronic inflammation, or a muscular or joint disease, can increase stiffness; but, age alone does not. Not working to achieve a normal ROM is the culprit. Not moving to each joint’s full potential is the troublemaker; not age.
Flexibility in a healthy adult, and the ability to move freely without restriction, increases quality of life. Test yourself. Do little things such as: explore your current ROM of your wrists, fingers, elbows, shoulders, back, hips, legs, ankles feet and toes. Use gravity and gentle force to explore the ROM of each joint, slowly… as if you were a kid again, and discovering your body’s ability to move, again. Do you feel restricted? Keep doing this every day and over time there will be less restriction. Open your shoulders, try to reach behind your back and over your head, gently, slowly, and a little bit every day. These are the little actions, every day, that add up to big changes over time (consult your doctor prior to starting any exercise program).
Let’s talk posture, which I will refer to as “alignment”.
The short version of alignment: you have 31 spine segments, and each has a nerve root coming out of both sides of that one segment. Each nerve root is responsible to move that area of your body (i.e., the nerve root in the lumbar spine region would not initiate movement in your arm, but would initiate movement in your leg). If the body is out of its alignment, then these nerves cannot function properly, and neither can the muscles that support the body that is out of alignment.
As a concept, alignment is exactly what you think it is. What you might not know is what proper alignment looks like.
The ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should all be in alignment when the human body is viewed in a standing position from the all sides; this is proper alignment. A change or dysfunction in any of these points (the ears represent the cranium) will pull a person, easily, out of alignment.
You thought that posture only meant the back, didn’t you.
You’re not alone.
Ballet and Posture
Over the past several decades, I have heard moms tell me that they want their daughters to take ballet class because it will give them flexibility and good posture. I have yet to hear a mom say the same about their son’s flexibility and posture, but that does not mean that this isn’t happening. More and more boys are taking ballet classes these days, and benefitting greatly for it, and adults are taking fitness classes that use ballet fundamentals as the foundation for the class.
In matters of posture and healthy alignment: it is the knowledgeable and observant ballet instructor who trains solid alignment and strength into the dancer (both male and female). Ballet itself, under antiquated instruction, can harm alignment, and train the natural lumbar curve out of the lower back, can flatten the natural curve of the thoracic spine (mid-back), can straighten the natural curve of the cervical spine (neck), can pull knees and ankles out of alignment, and round the shoulders to the extent of duplicating slumped shoulders.
Ballet itself does not improve posture; it is the talent of the instructor who can identify alignment that improves posture.
Why maintain alignment? Because alignment is essential for a body to function properly, and the body does not function properly when it is out of alignment over long periods of time.
The body that is out of alignment experiences more fatigue (due to decreased ROM forcing a greater load on other muscles), shallow breathing (decreased oxygen), increased pain (muscle spasms), and can interrupt REM sleep that may lead to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as poor attention span or memory. Studies on human behavior suggest that we are more likely to make poor lifestyle choices to cope with the symptoms we feel when we do not feel well. These choices often accelerate the aging process.
Alignment and normal ROM is important to overall health, and can be achieved through small actions that lead to an increase of flexibility.
Treat the body well. Give your muscles what they need to hold your skeletal system. Seek out a talented chiropractor to help you understand what chiropractic medicine is, and help you maintain spine alignment (chiropractors are licensed practitioners with extensive training). Look for a knowledgeable massage therapist who can help maintain muscular health. Move, every day. Learn about ROM, and move your joints, everyday. Walk with purpose, and look for ways to increase your strides. Breathe.
The little things that we do, every day, add up to big changes over time. The little old lady we see walking into the supermarket, half bent over… the little man shuffling along in church… unless there is an underlying medical disorder, these postures were not caused by age along. Open yourself up, widen your stride, reach higher. Combat age using flexibility.