Over time, everyone's body ages and shows signs from natural wear and tear. You might have noticed a few of these signs already. Maybe when you get up in the morning, you're stiffer than you used to be. Maybe your knees hurt or your back aches.
Regular exercise helps delay and improve the physical symptoms of aging. However, it's important to include flexibility, mobility, and balance exercises in your routine. It’s never too late to start. Use the following tips to stay agile and ensure your body stays in motion for a long time to come.
Improve Flexibility and Mobility
Flexibility and mobility are both important to how your body functions and pivotal to healthy aging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths in older adults.1 Individuals who maintain muscle strength and flexibility are less likely to fall.1-3
Flexibility refers to the ability to move a joint through the full range of motion, or fully lengthen a muscle. Mobility involves a bit more. It includes flexibility as well as strength and coordination.
Simply stretching can help you be more flexible, improve your mobility, increase range of motion, and decrease pain in joints.2-5 There are three types of basic stretches. You can choose to focus on increasing flexibility, or you can work on mobility, too.
- Static stretching. You probably learned this style in middle school. (Think standing toe touch and thigh stretch.) Static stretching increases flexibility by putting light tension on a muscle and holding the position for 30-60 seconds. It’s best to warm up with movement or exercise first before attempting this type of stretch. Important note: Don't bounce while stretching.
Isometric stretching. Isometric stretching increases strength and flexibility. In this type of stretching, you get into a static stretch position, then gently contract the stretched muscle. An example is the "push-the-wall" calf-stretch. To start, place the ball of your foot on a wall and keep your heel on the floor. This is a static stretch. Then, gently push your toes against the wall. This is now an isometric stretch because it contracts the muscles in your calf.
- During an isometric stretch, keep the length of the muscle and the angle of the joint steady. Hold for 10-15 seconds then relax your muscle for about 20 seconds and repeat.
Dynamic stretching. When you roll your neck, do walking lunges, or arm windmills, you're doing dynamic stretching. A dynamic stretch requires a specific movement and allows the joints and muscles to move through their full range of motion.
- Dynamic stretching is controlled and smooth. It's a great way to warm up before exercising and helps increase range of motion.
When beginning a stretching routine, remember to take it slow. Stretching too quickly and too far can trigger your body's defense mechanisms to protect itself from tearing joints and muscles. Stretch just until you feel tension. If you feel pain, then you've gone too far.
Use A Foam Roller to Boost Range of Motion
Foam rolling increases range of motion in your joints. One study found that a combination of foam rolling and static stretching is the most effective activity for increasing range of motion in athletes compared to static stretching or foam rolling alone.6
Balance helps you move more efficiently, avoid injuries, and is vital to healthy aging. Balance refers to the ability to stay upright and steady, whether you're standing, kneeling, sitting, or squatting. Balance training improves your body's ability to react quickly to everyday missteps, which helps prevent falls.3,7,8
Several sensory systems in your body contribute to good balance. Your vision, inner ear, and joint receptors provide a sense of where your body is in space. Your neuromuscular system combines this information to give you the stability you need to keep your body upright, with your weight evenly distributed.7
Balance exercises can train and strengthen your neuromuscular system and increase your stability. Here are some ways to incorporate balance activities into your day:
Change your base of support
- Pretend you're on a balance beam and walk one foot in front of the other while maintaining balance.
- Balance on one foot during TV commercials, waiting for the bus, reading the news. Look for everyday opportunities to practice.
Change your surface
- Stand on an unstable surface such as a pillow, mat, foam pad, balance ball (Bosu) flat-side down (more stable) or up (less stable). Stand with your feet close together or on one leg if you're able.
- Go for a walk on variable terrain, such as a sandy beach or a hiking trail. Standing on a floating dock can also challenge your balance.
Close your eyes
- Close your eyes and then stand with your feet together or on one leg. You can also pretend to walk on a balance beam or walk on a varying surface.
Turn your head or look up and down
- Stand on an unstable surface (or change your base support as described above), then turn your head side-to-side or up and down. For more of a challenge, try both at the same time or close your eyes.
- While standing on one leg, straighten your arms out from both sides of your body to form a "T" position. Move your arms in small circular motions for 30 seconds, then reverse the motion in the opposite direction. Work to increase your time. After this becomes easy, try simultaneously turning your head side-to-side.
Try Tai Chi for Improving Balance, Strength, and Well-being
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that is practiced today as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow and focused manner, accompanied by deep breathing.
Evidence indicates that tai chi can:9,10
- Improve balance control
- Increase muscle strength in the lower part of the body
- Improve the body’s ability to sense its location, movements, and actions (proprioception)
- Improve the ability to maintain balance and remain upright during changes in position (postural adaptation)
In addition, research indicates that practicing tai chi might improve quality of sleep, enhance the immune system, lower blood pressure, improve symptoms of congestive heart failure, and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression.11-14 Although you can buy videos and books about tai chi or find instructive videos on the Internet, also consider seeking guidance from a qualified instructor to gain the full benefits and learn proper techniques.
Improving your balance, flexibility, and mobility can ease the physical symptoms of aging and keep you agile for years to come. However you choose to move, remember to breathe freely, start slowly, and be gentle.
A Word from Thorne
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Falls. https://www.cdc.gov. [Accessed October 13, 2021]
- Cifu DX. The geriatric patient. In: Braddom's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 5th ed. Elsevier Inc; 2016. https://www.clinicalkey.com. [Accessed October 13, 2021]
- Morey MC. Physical activity and exercise in older adults. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed October 13, 2021]
- Maeda N, Urabe Y, Fujii E, et al. The effect of different stretching techniques on ankle joint range of motion and dynamic postural stability after landing. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2016;56(6):692-698.
- Al Dajah S. Soft tissue mobilization and PNF improve range of motion and minimize pain level in shoulder impingement. J Phys Ther Sci 2014;26(11):1803-1805.
- Škarabot J, Beardsley C, Štirn I. Comparing the effects of self-myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range-of-motion in adolescent athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2015;10(2):203-212.
- Kiel D. Fall: Prevention in community-dwelling older persons. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed October 11, 2021]
- DiPietro L. Physical activity and function in older age: it’s never too late to start! American College of Sports Medicine. https://www.acsm.org/blog-detail/acsm-blog/2019/09/10/physical-activity-function-older-age. [Accessed October 11, 2021]
- Penn I, Sung W, Lin CH, et al. Effects of individualized Tai-Chi on balance and lower-limb strength in older adults. BMC Geriatr 2019;19(1):235.
- Kendrick D, Kumar A, Carpenter H, et al. Exercise for reducing fear of falling in older people living in the community. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014;(11).
- Bystritsky A. Complementary and alternative treatments for anxiety symptoms and disorders: Physical, cognitive, and spiritual interventions. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed Nov. 1, 2021]
- Ma C, Zhou W, Tang Q, Huang S. The impact of group-based Tai chi on health-status outcomes among community-dwelling older adults with hypertension. Heart Lung 2018;47(4):337-344.
- Haija A, Kolasinski S. Complementary and alternative therapies. In: Current Diagnosis & Treatment: Rheumatology. 3rd ed. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Education; 2013. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. [Accessed Nov. 1, 2021]
- Tsai P, Kitch S, Chang J, et al. Tai chi for posttraumatic stress disorder and chronic musculoskeletal pain: A pilot study. J Holist Nurs 2018;36(2):147-158.