If you find yourself losing balance and feeling less flexible as you get older, then you’re not alone.
Aging is often accompanied by decreased balance and muscle strength, increasing the risk of falling. Muscles lose their elasticity, becoming tighter and shorter. While stretching is often thought of in relation to athletic performance, older individuals can benefit from regular stretching exercises to improve the functionality of daily living.
Methods of stretching include static stretching, dynamic stretching, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Static stretching is typically the method that first comes to mind when people think of stretching. This method involves placing muscles at their greatest possible length, or moving a limb to the end of its range of motion, and holding that position for a period of time, often 15 to 60 seconds (1). Dynamic stretching involves controlled movement of the joint through the active range of motion while proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation involves movement around the joint in more than one plane (1,2).
According to researchers, slow gentle stretching is the most effective. Stretching until the point of tightness, not pain, should be the goal when holding a stretch (3). Although there is no specific recommendation for type, frequency, duration, or length of program, researchers and exercise physiologists agree that regular stretching is beneficial for a variety of reasons including maintenance of strength, improvements in flexibility and blood flow, and a greater sense of relaxation and overall well-being (4,5).
New Research Report
Stretching improves range of motion, which is known to deteriorate with age, however the theory behind the mechanism is unclear. A new review, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport, examined whether the increased range of motion is due to changes in the mechanical properties of the muscle-tendon (decrease in tissue stiffness) or simply an increased tolerance to stretch (sensory theory) (6).
Researchers identified over 9,500 articles in their search. A total of 26 were selected for review following implementation of inclusion criteria – 23 studied static stretching, three studied dynamic stretching, and three studied proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching. Stretching protocols ranged from three to eight weeks long, with an average stretch time of just under 20 minutes per week. From the extensive review, researchers concluded that, for protocols under eight weeks long, there is no change in the muscle-tendon mechanical properties and the changes in flexibility occur at a sensory level.
One caveat to the review is that the results are not indicative of the changes that occur for protocols lasting longer than eight weeks. The authors suggest that while sensory changes are the first to occur, and the stretch may “feel” like it’s getting easier, the actual mechanical changes may not take place until stretching has been performed for a significant length of time.
The positives of adopting daily stretching become clear once you implement a stretching routine into your day. It begins to feel easier as it changes the mechanical properties of the muscle. Among the many benefits is increased flexibility, range of motion, feelings of relaxation, and maintenance of strength.
- Behm DG and Chaouachi A. A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. Nov 2011; 111(11): 2633-2651.
- Sharman MJ, Cresswell AG, and Riek S. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching mechanisms and clinical implications. Sports Med. Nov 2006; 36(11): 929-939.
- Bandy WD, Irion JM, and Briggler M. The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Physical Therapy. Oct 1997; 77(10): 1090-1096.
- Smith CA. The warm-up procedure: to stretch or not to stretch. A brief review. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. Jan 1994; 19(1): 12-7.
- Stathokostas L, Little RMD, Vandervoort AA, and Paterson DH. Flexibility training and functional ability in older adults: a systematic review. J Aging Res. 8 Nov 2012; 2012: 1-30.
- Freitas SR, Mendes B, Le Sant G, et al. Can chronic stretching change the muscle-tendon mechanical properties? A review. Scand J Med Sci Sport. 9 Oct 2017; 00: 1-13. doi: 10.1111/sms.12957