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Why Is It Important To Assess Flexibility When You Are Over 50

Once in a while a patient of mine would ask, “Why is it important to assess my flexibility when my problem is…”

  • my balance
  • my shoulder
  • my back
  • my knee
  • my hip
  • or a myriad of other issues seemingly not related to flexibility.

As we age, it’s common for our bodies to become less flexible. This loss of flexibility can lead to a decrease in joint and overall physical mobility. In turn, decreased mobility leads to decreased physical activity levels, joint issues, and fall risks.

While it’s normal for people over 50 to experience a decline in flexibility, there are many things that can be done to help slow down or even reverse the process. 

Why is it important to assess flexibility?

Flexibility is a key component of physical fitness and overall health. Flexibility plays a significant role in preventing injuries and maintaining mobility in older adults.

These are a few reasons why flexibility is so important when you are over 50:

  1. First, flexibility helps to maintain the range of motion of your joints, which can help to prevent joint pain and stiffness.
  2. Second, flexibility helps to keep your muscles and tendons around the joints healthy.
  3. And third, flexibility helps to improve your balance and coordination, which can help to prevent falls; a common cause of injury among people over 50.

What are the techniques for assessing flexibility?

Why is it important to assess flexibility?

There are a variety of techniques and physical tests that can be used to assess flexibility. The examples I detail below do not need a goniometer and are the easiest to perform at home for people over 50.

Sit and Reach Test

The sit-and-reach test is used to measure the flexibility of your lower back and hamstrings

  1. To start, sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. 
  2. Reach forward as far as you can, without moving your legs. 
  3. Measure the distance between your fingertips tips and the farthest point you reached. 

This test of flexibility is a quick way to measure flexibility of the posterior chain muscle group. Tightness in the posterior chain muscles often alter your posture and affect your equilibrium and balance.

Lack of flexibility in your back and hamstring muscles can also contribute to low back pain.

Back Scratch Test

You can use the back scratch test to evaluate your shoulder flexibility and mobility.

  1. One arm is raised overhead, bent at the elbow, and reaches as far down behind your back as possible.
  2. The other hand reaches around the waist and attempts to touch the fingers of the upper hand.
  3. The distance between the fingers is measured.

Your ability to move your arm and reach through the full range of your shoulder joint is a good indicator of the level of flexibility of your upper body.

Shoulder Elevation Test

If you’re 50 or older, this is an easy-to-perform but very important flexibility test.

  1. Lie down on your back.
  2. Raise your arm up overhead with the palm of your hand facing up.
  3. If you cannot rest your hand on the floor, measure the distance between your hand and the ground.

Lying down on the floor will help stabilize your shoulder blade and prevent you from bending or rotating your back to reach higher. This test can also be turned as part of your regular stretching routine to help you reach higher.

Trunk Rotation Test

The purpose of this flexibility test is to measure the flexibility of your trunk and shoulders.

  1. On the wall, draw a vertical line. 
  2. Place your back to the wall directly in front of the line. 
  3. Your feet should be shoulder width apart and your body about an arms’ length away from the wall.
  4. Straighten your arms in front of you so that they are parallel to the ground. 
  5. Turn your trunk to your right and touch the wall behind you with your fingertips. It is important to keep your arms extended and parallel to the ground. It is okay to turn your shoulders, hips, and knees as long as you don’t move your feet.
  6. Make a mark on the wall where your fingertips touch.
  7. Repeat the steps while turning toward the left side.

These simple tests are not joint specific but rather involve various joints thus giving you a good sense of your total body flexibility.

What can you do to improve your flexibility?

What can you do to improve your flexibility?

There are a number of things you can do to improve your flexibility, including:

  • Static Stretching
  • Dynamic Stretching
  • Doing Yoga
  • Taking regular breaks during extended periods of sitting or standing
  • Taking a dance or martial arts class as a fitness program

Static Stretching

Static stretch involves stretching a muscle as far as it will go and holding that position for at least 30 seconds. Each stretch is often focused on a single muscle group.

I often recommend this type of stretch to people who are just starting to ramp up their exercise or activity levels. This is the safest way to improve flexibility with the least risk of causing soft tissue injuries.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic, sometimes called ballistic stretching, are a more aggressive type of stretching technique often used in the field of athletic performance. Think of Michael Phelps “flailing” his arms around his body several times to warm up before a swimming competition.

I only suggest this type of stretching exercises to patients who are more active and need dynamic flexibility as required either by their work or sports and hobbies.

Yoga

An ancient discipline, yoga has evolved into several types, each with a specific goal in mind. Yoga promotes flexibility by emphasizing stretching and holding asanas (body positions) for several breath cycles.

My patients practicing yoga report improvements in flexibility and muscular endurance, decreased joint aches and pains, and efficient body movements.

Taking regular breaks during extended periods of sitting or standing

Can you remember the last time you got up after spending a long time sitting?

Didn’t your joints and muscles feel stiff and tight? Did you have a hard time “straightening” your back and body back up?

Now, imagine if you were in that position every day, what would it be like?

We often overlook the strategy of taking regular breaks and changing positions after extended periods of sitting or standing because it is too easy to implement. And, that is exactly why it works – because it is easy to implement!

Taking a dance or martial arts class as a fitness program

Dancing and martial arts are not just for the young ones. If incorporated to your exercise program, dancing and martial arts are great physical activities to improve your muscle and connective tissue strength and flexibility while using a wide range of motion.

How to improve your stretching routine

How to improve your stretching routine

If you’re looking to improve your stretching routine, here are a few things you can do:

  • First, make sure you’re stretching regularly. Stretching is most effective when it’s done on a regular basis. You should aim to stretch at least 3 times a week. 
  • Second, focus on areas that are tight or stiff. Pay attention to the areas of your body that feel tight or sore and give them extra attention when stretching. 
  • Third, try different stretches. There are many different stretching exercises you can do. Try to mix things up and find a variety of stretches that work for you. 
  • Fourth, add props. If you find certain stretches difficult to do, you can use props to help you. For example, if you can’t reach your toes when doing a hamstring stretch, you can use a strap or towel to help you. 
  • Finally, be patient. Don’t try to push yourself too hard. Stretching should be gentle and relaxing. If you feel pain, stop. 

What are the best flexibility exercises for people over 50?

What are the best flexibility exercises for people over 50?

Neck and Trapezius Stretch

  1. You can start while sitting or standing.
  2. Bend your neck to one side.
  3. Apply light pressure using your hand.
  4. Hold this position for 30 seconds.

Wall Stretch

Stand in between the a door frame.

Raise your arms to shoulder height and place forearms on the door frame.

Step forward through the door.

You can vary your arm height to stretch different muscles of your chest.

Hamstring Stretch 

  1. To do this stretch, sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. 
  2. With your hands on the floor, slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch in the back of your legs. 
  3. Hold this position for 30 seconds. 

Quad Stretch: 

  1. To do this stretch, stand up straight and hold onto a chair or wall for support. 
  2. Bend one knee and bring your heel up towards your buttock. 
  3. Grasp your ankle and pull it gently towards your body. 
  4. Hold this position for 30 seconds. 

Calf Stretch: 

  1. To do this stretch, stand up straight with your feet together. 
  2. Place your hands on a wall or chair for support. 
  3. Keeping your heel on the ground, lunge forward with your other leg.
  4. Hold this position for 30 seconds. 

As with any exercise program, to avoid injuries it is best to start your flexibility or stretching exercises slow and gradually increase your exercise routine over time.  

This will give your body time to get used to new movement patterns and avoid exercise injuries.

Dr. Lex Gonzales
Dr. Lex Gonzales, PT, DPT is an award-winning author and speaker. On drlexgonzales.com, he provides practical information to help people over 50 get strong, healthy, and pain-free.
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