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Functional Flexibility Activities for Older Adults

By Lori Peppi Michiel

For aging adults going from inactivity to activity, flexibility training may offer a good start towards a healthy lifestyle. This type of training may lack the high profile of cardiovascular exercise and strength training, but it can improve range of motion, decrease pain and soreness after exercise, improve posture, and decrease muscle tension. More importantly, stretching can make the difference in comfort when performing tasks such as putting a shirt or blouse on in the morning or reaching for a cup of tea or coffee. As a result, flexibility can contribute significantly to overall functional fitness, helping older adults safely and effectively accomplish independent activities of daily living.

Consider that most research studies suggest a combination of flexibility training with other interventions, balance, core, muscular endurance and resistance training, along with some form of cardiovascular exercise.

Guidelines indicate that a flexibility program should begin with a total of five to ten stretches for both the upper and lower body. Although this program might focus on muscles prone to tightness, such as hamstrings (back of thighs), it should concentrate mainly on an individual’s physical requirements as determined by a physical assessment.

Practitioners should assess a person’s range of motion before beginning any specific stretch. Older adults may have limited mobility due to arthritis or past injury. Also proper posture and biomechanics are important to help avoid “overcompensating” or strain to complete a stretch.

It is wise to stretch slowly and gradually to increase range of movement. Bouncing needs to be eliminated; rather, hold a stretch long enough to feel slight discomfort for 15 to 30 seconds, while continuing to breathe normally. Each stretch should be repeated at least three times. The best results are obtained if performing stretching exercises at least two days a week, minimum and after some type of cardiovascular exercise, as “cold” muscles are much stiffer and harder to stretch than “warm” muscles.

As an essential part of everyday life, from driving to dressing to cleaning, lack of flexibility can limit a person’s life. This type of training contributes to functional fitness, helping older adults stay independent as they age.

Stretching activities belong in any physical activity program for adults at any age, improving general health safely and effectively.

Before an initial program, your health and wellness practitioner should conduct a physical assessment and refer to client’s physician prior to starting on any exercise regime.

Reference: American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) “Position Stand: Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults.” 1998;30(6):992-1007


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