Flexibility is one of the five components of fitness, which means it's every bit as important as the other four components (body composition, muscular endurance, muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance), even though it's perpetually overlooked and under-emphasized.
The reason why regular stretching is so important is that flexibility — and its byproduct range of motion — deteriorate over time and with age. You've probably noticed that older adults often have shorter gaits than children and younger adults. Older people are less steady on their feet, struggle more with quick changes of direction and are generally less agile. While some of these negative physiological changes are due to neurological or inner ear problems, many are due to a simple lack of flexibility.
You see, as muscles become less flexible and stiffer, range of motion around a joint declines. When range of motion decreases, it becomes more difficult to move naturally and quickly around that joint. For instance, if your lower back and hips lose flexibility, your range of motion in your back and hips will decrease. As a result, it'll be more difficult to bend, twist, walk or step laterally. Your gait might shorten and slow, and you might realize when you get knocked off balance, or need to move quickly to avoid a collision, it becomes more difficult to stay on your feet. Many falls experienced by older adults are a result of limited range of motion and an inability to recover when balance is challenged.
The good news is it's not hard to maintain or even increase flexibility. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults stretch two or three days a week, targeting all major muscle groups.
Simply add this 10-minute stretching routine to the end of your regular workout to reap the benefits of flexibility training. Hold each stretch for the time suggested.
Grasp just above your elbow with your opposite hand and allow the hand of the stretching muscle to reach down your back. You should feel the stretch along your triceps. Hold for 30 seconds before switching sides.
Grasp just above or below your elbow with your opposite hand and pull the arm of the stretching muscle toward your body. You should feel the stretch along the back of your shoulder and into your upper back. Hold for 30 seconds before switching sides.
Clasp both hands behind your back, your arms straight. Pull your hands down to feel a stretch across your chest. Look up to deepen the stretch and further open up the chest. Hold for 30 seconds.
Grasp just above the ankle with your same-side hand as you pull your heel in toward your butt. Try to tuck your tailbone under and point your kneecap toward the floor. Hold for 30 seconds before switching sides.
To stretch your hamstrings, glutes and inner thighs, step your feet out wide and carefully roll your body forward toward the floor. Place your hands on the ground, on your shins or reaching back between your legs. Allow your neck to hang loose. Hold for 30 seconds, then move steadily into the next stretch.
Moving from the wide-leg forward fold, walk your hands carefully over to your right side with your hands on the floor, your shins or your quads. Hold for 30 seconds before walking your hands to the center, then all the way across your body to repeat on the opposite side.
After returning to standing from the standing straddle stretch, keep your legs wide, bend both knees and lower yourself into a wide-leg squat with your knees tracking with your toes (not buckling in). Place your hands on your thighs to support yourself in the stretch, allowing your hips to open. Hold for 30 seconds.
To stretch along the front of your hips — an area known for tightness — kneel on the ground, one leg in front. Place your hands on your front thigh and shift your weight forward to lengthen your back leg as you keep your torso upright. You should feel the stretch along the front of the hip of your back leg. Hold for 30 seconds before switching sides.
In a full push-up position, with your weight supported on the balls of your feet, hook one foot behind your opposite ankle, press back through your supporting heel to feel a stretch along the back of your supporting calf. Hold for 30 seconds before switching sides.
Sit on the ground with the soles of your feet touching and draw your heels as close in to your body as you can. Lean forward slightly to deepen the stretch — and if you can, place your elbows on your inner thighs to press them further into the ground. Hold for 30 seconds.
Lie on your back, your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Press your hips up toward the ceiling and bring your hands together under your body. If you can, walk your shoulders in toward each other to support a deeper stretch. You should feel this along the entire front side of your body. Hold for 30 seconds.
Lie on your back and stretch your arms out to the sides, forming a T. Bend one knee and place your foot on the ground. Allow the knee to carefully fall over your straight leg as your spine begins to twist. This should be a controlled motion. Keep both shoulders on the ground and look over your arm to the opposite side. The knee that's bent does not have to touch the ground. Hold for 30 seconds before switching sides.
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