You are aging when your actions creak louder than your words. – Milton Berle
There are lots of reasons to devote some effort to remaining flexible:
• Tying your shoes
• Picking up grandkids
• Avoiding injury
• Participating in sports
• Reaching things on high shelves
• Turning your head to back up your car
• Improving coordination and balance
• Maintaining mobility
• Keeping a good posture
• Easing stress
Flexibility is a measure of the range of motion available to your joints, e.g. elbows, knees, hips and the like. If you have good flexibility you should, among other things, be able to raise both your arms straight over your head, straighten your legs completely and rotate your hips 45°.
Flexibility in our joints tends to decline due at any age with lack of use. Our joints’ connective tissues become stiff and dense without exercise.
As we grow older, other changes in the connective tissues of our joints also affect our flexibility. Collagen, which is a protein found in these and other tissues, tends to thicken up our joint linings and the tissues surrounding our joints. As a result, our joints’ range of motion declines and our movements may become less fluid and precise. Left to its own devices, normal aging could result in the loss of 70% of our range of motion between age 20 and age 70.
So what can we do slow the loss of flexibility? STRETCH!
Does it work? Testimonial time: when I retired from my life in the big corporation I was pretty stiff. I had had a couple of back surgeries (L-5 rupture for those who like to know these things) and 30+ years in an office environment. One measure of stiffness: I could not bend over and touch my toes. My wife suggested I join her yoga class which I did. Now retired for eight years I can bend at the waist and, without strain, lay my hands flat on the floor.
There are many approaches to stretching. I will cover a few major ones here but it is important to note for all stretching programs:
• Stretching should never be painful. Stretching should be relaxing and enjoyable. Take a stretch just to the point of discomfort and then let the discomfort ease away while you feel your joints gaining flexibility.
• Don’t force your stretches. Let gravity work for you.
• Stretching should be slow and gentle. Hold the stretch – 30 seconds or more. Breathe comfortably. Never bounce.
• Stretch when you are warm, not cold.
• Stretch all major parts of your body.
Here are some excellent programs for stretching:
Yoga comes from a Sanskrit word that means “make whole”. Our definition would be “a practice directed at bringing mind and body into alignment and state of well-being.” Other definitions might focus more on physical exercises, mental and spiritual peace, or something more philosophical.
Yoga exercises (asanas) will help you build flexibility, strength, balance. They can also help reduce stress and improve your breathing. If you want to also take it to a place more spiritual, that path is available.
While there are lots of books, videos and web sites with yoga guidance, I suggest the best way to begin is with a class. Even if you have a room full of mirrors, you can’t really see everything your body is doing as you practice asanas. An instructor can help guide you to a faster, more effective start and help you get the most out of your practice. Once you get the lay of the land you can replace or supplement the classes with videos or books as you deem appropriate. The classes can be a lot of fun and help challenge you to try new things and take your practice to higher levels.
Check with your town, YM/YWCA, school system, senior center, hospitals etc re: the availability of classes.
Tai chi is an ancient form of slow, gentle rhythmic exercise that was originally developed in China as a form of martial art but is now largely performed for its physical therapeutic benefits. You go through a series of postures or movements that flow from one to the next so your body is in constant, but slow, motion.
It is a low impact exercise so it works well for people of all ages and can work particularly well for older adults. It requires no equipment and can be done individually or as part of a group.
As with Yoga, you can learn Tai chi from books or videos as well as through classes in community centers, YM&WCAs and health centers. And as with Yoga, beginning with an instructor to help you learn the basics and avoid errors can be very helpful.
“Somatics” is a termed coined by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D. (1928-1990). He defined somatics as “…the field of study dealing with somatic phenomena, i.e., the human being as experienced by himself (or herself) from the inside.”
In Hanna’s view, as we go through life our sensory-muscle systems react to the vicissitudes of daily existence in a reflexive fashion. Over time we lose the ability to voluntarily relax these muscles (he called this sensory-motor amnesia) and we become stiff and inflexible.
Somatics teaches that we can relearn control over these stiffened muscles through a series of exercises. All the somatic exercises involve slow, gentle and low stress movements. Once control has been reacquired, it can be maintained trough a daily five minute “Cat Stretch.”
You can learn more about somatics by typing “somatics educational resources” into your web browser. Mr. Hanna’s book on the subject is Somatics, DaCapo Press, 2004.
Author’s note: Yoga, Tai chi and the five minute “Cat Stretch” are part of my daily routine.
An interesting thought is that when we were younger most of us didn’t seem to need to devote much time or attention to flexibility and stretching; as we grow older, we do. Our inclinations may be do less when in fact our bodies need us to do more.
R. Kevin Price
© 2008-2010 R.K. Price