There are six physical abilities that every healthy person should work on: strength, aerobic capacity, flexibility, balance, strength, and stability. All of these elements combine to create a strong, mobile body that keeps you safe and allows you to recover quickly. As we age, flexibility and balance tend to diminish primarily because of our decline in strength. While many believe that stretching is the only way to increase flexibility, strength training can actually help improve muscle strength and mobility, especially in older adults.
The body is like a pulley apparatus for double muscles: when one area contracts and shortens, the other relaxes and lengthens. Think of a biceps exercise. When the biceps muscle contracts or shortens, the triceps lengthens. When you contract the triceps, the biceps lengthens. Too often we work one muscle but fail to work the opposite muscle evenly. This makes our muscles feel tight and stiff. In order to help these tight muscles “relax,” we need to focus on strengthening the other muscles in the pair.
It is important for older adults to focus on the strength and movement of their shoulders/chest and hips/back so that the body posture remains upright and does not begin to stoop, causing unnecessary stress on the spine, neck and lower back. Here are some of our favorite extensions:
Stretching entrance pick
- Stand in an open doorway. Raise the arms above your head, bend your elbows to make a 90-degree angle, and place your palms on the door frame.
- Slowly advance forward with one foot. Pull yourself forward using your torso and feel the stretch in your shoulders and chest. Stand upright, don’t lean forward, and focus on breathing in through your nose and out slowly through the mouth.
- Hold for 30 seconds. Back off and relax.
- Repeat 3 times.
Standing assisted standing hip elongation
- Use the TRX Suspension Trainer, chair, table, handrail, or something sturdy for support.
- Take half of your right leg.
- Keeping your torso straight, push your hips forward until you feel a stretch along the front of your right leg. Focus on breathing in through your nose and exhaling slowly through the mouth.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this stretch with your left leg back.
- Repeat twice on each side.
Cat Cow Spinal Movement Exercise
- Start on your hands and knees in a tabletop position with a neutral spine. While inhaling, move into the cowl position by pressing your chest forward, arching your back toward the floor, and allowing your stomach to sink. Lift your head, relax your shoulders away from your ears, and look straight ahead.
- As you exhale, get into the cat’s pose by rotating your spine up, flexing your tailbone, and pulling your pubic bone forward. Release your head toward the floor.
- Relax and focus on the breathing rather than the distance you reach in each pose.
- Spend 15 to 30 seconds in each pose. Repeat 3 times.
Tightening the shoulders, hips, and back can improve movement and increase range of motion. Once the muscles on the front side of the body are tightened, add vigorous movements to the back side of the body to help improve posture and flexibility. Maintaining strength throughout a lifetime helps ward off muscular atrophy (muscle loss) and osteoporosis (bone loss), both of which can lead to a poor quality of life in later years.
The stronger the body, the better it maintains an upright position. Bones remain stronger and muscles remain healthy with strength exercises, but it is important to use appropriate heavy loads and full ranges of motion. Older adults are more susceptible to injury from falls, so adding strength can help prevent falls and improve flexibility in the face of injuries. When training for strength, it is important to move through the largest pain-free range of motion. The stronger a person is at deeper ranges of motion, the easier it is to maintain balance and stability.
The following strength movements pair well with the stretches above to improve flexibility and maintain balance:
- Start with a box or chair that’s no lower than your knees bent.
- Without using arms or hands, sit gently on the box/chair in a slow, controlled motion.
- Drive across with your feet without using your arms or hands to move your hips forward and up away from the box/chair to a standing position. *
- Repeat for 8-15 reps. Complete 2-4 sets.
*If this is too challenging, increase the seat height so that all reps can be completed without upper body assistance. Slowly lower the height of the chair every few weeks.
High Angle Resistance Tape / Cable Face Pull
- Attach a long resistance band to the forehead elevation point or higher or set the cable pulley to the same height.
- Stand tall. Hold one side of the tape/rope in each hand with a fist (palms facing the ground). Your arms should be fully extended in front of you.
- Bend your elbows and pull your hands toward the bridge of your nose, pressing your shoulder blades together as you pull.
- Repeat for 8-15 reps. Complete 2-4 sets.
With the help of squatting knots
- Use a squat stand or TRX Suspension Trainer to help you out.
- Step back with one foot and lower the knee into a lunge position.
- Balance as much as possible on the front leg, and use as little of your hands as possible to ensure you don’t fall.
- Hold the lunge position for 20-30 seconds on each side. Complete 2-4 sets.
For many older adults, adding flexibility and increasing physical activity for just a few days each week can have a significant impact on quality of life. Adding strength to the muscles you need and stretching really tight muscles helps improve posture and reduce aches and pains so you can live a mobile and independent life.