Staying physically active is one of the best things you can do for your body as you get older. “It can help prevent a lot of health problems that come with aging,” says Kassandra Reagan, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
That doesn’t just mean doing cardio and strength training. The Centers for Disease Control recommends seniors do activities to improve balance and flexibility every week as well. This means spending more time stretching as you get older. “Flexibility and stretching are key parts of your health that will keep you doing the things you love,” Dr. Reagan says.
When it comes to the best stretches to do and how to get the max benefits out of them, Dr. Reagan says the research varies. “There are conflicting suggestions on when to use them, and mismatched information on the duration to which you need to hold/perform them,” she says. “However, the benefits seem to be agreed upon and the purpose and goal remains consistent: It will help your joints move through their full range of motion, increase muscle blood flow, and enable your muscles to work most effectively.”
As you get older, the benefits of stretching stay the same, but the importance of it changes, according to Dr. Reagan. “There are physiological changes that occur–some specific to our muscles,” she says. “They lose strength and power, decrease in mass, decline in endurance, and flexibility becomes more limited.” Taken together, these changes can end up limiting our functional abilities in day-to-day life, and increasing our risk of falling, getting injured, or simply being in pain.
She says stretching is an excellent way to combat these natural effects of aging and improve our general health and wellness. “What you should focus on are stretches that will help you obtain the proper range, postures, and positions necessary for your desired activities,” Dr. Reagan says. “So, depending on what you want to be able to do, your stretches may vary. But a nonspecific full-body stretching routine can also be very beneficial for your general health.”
There are different types of stretches (six major ones, in fact), but the most common are static and dynamic stretching. Both are effective ways of increasing flexibility, Dr. Reagan says. “Static is when you stretch a muscle near its end point for an extended period of time, usually around 30 seconds. Dynamic stretches are more active where the muscle and joints go through their range of motion,” she explains. For the latter, you may perform the same stretch multiple times, but only hold it for two or three seconds each rep.
This cool-down routine is a great example of dynamic stretches in action:
In general, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends most adults perform static stretches at least two to three days per week, holding each for 15-30 seconds and repeating two to four times.
This may not be enough time for older adults, though. “They may need upwards of 40 to 60 seconds to hold each stretch to get the same effect,” Dr. Reagan says. “It has also been recommended for older adults to be doing these stretches more frequently throughout the week than the recommended two to three days.”
There’s no right or wrong time to stretch, so finding ways to work it into your day-to-day habits is the move, whether you set aside dedicated time after dinner every night, or always do a few moves while waiting for your coffee to brew.
A great place to start? Incorporate quick stretches, like this 8-minute video, into your morning routine: