We often look at stretching as an add-on to other workouts. Maybe, even as a busy parent, it’s one activity that gets left out. But designating time for stretching every week can help you become more flexible.
But have you waited too late in life to finally get flexible?
If you ignored stretching for a long time, you might wonder if it’s too late to become flexible. The simple answer is – no, it’s never too late. However, regaining flexibility gets more challenging as we age. Our muscles, tendons, and joints become stiffer, especially with lack of use.
Therefore, if you want to maintain your flexibility, be ready to make it a lifestyle decision. With consistent practice you will enjoy an increased range of motion in your body, regardless of your age.
How Aging Impacts Flexibility?
You likely know and accept that children are more flexible than adults. You might notice it on yourself, how some movements you could easily do before require much more effort now. However, you maybe don’t understand why.
The common problem with this change is that it seems that we become inflexible overnight. We don’t notice our mobility is decreasing until it starts to seriously impact our everyday activities. This moment comes at different stage in everyone’s life. Except for age, it also depends on our lifestyle, suffered injures or an underlying condition.
But regardless of where you are in life, it’s important to accept that flexibility naturally decreases as we get older
To help you understand why that’s happening, let’s take a deeper look at how flexibility changes with aging.
Flexibility encompasses our entire musculoskeletal system. This complex system composes of muscles, but also of cartilage, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons, as well as connective tissue. All these parts work in unison to activate a movement, and just as muscles can lengthen and stretch, so tendons and connective tissues need to stay elastic and bones healthy for us to experience full range of motion.
As we age or when we don’t do certain movements, the body slowly loses its ability to perform them easily.
There are several specific changes that come as we age:
- We lose muscle mass
- We lose bone density
- The water content in our tendons decreases, which makes them stiffer
- Our ligaments become less elastic
- The cartilage between joints becomes thinner
- Minerals can build up around the joints, contributing to the feeling of tightness
When we look at these factors, we can understand how flexibility decreases as we get older. But as intimidating as it sounds, it shouldn’t discourage you.
The positive side is that we can improve our flexibility with a consistent stretching routine. Although we cannot stop the aging process entirely, we can delay it, prevent injuries and maintain our active lives for longer.
To better understand how to achieve that, we will first go through a general explanation of how flexibility works, following by the best practices for regaining flexibility – at any age.
What Is Flexibility and How It Works?
We went through the impact of aging on flexibility, however to get the best insight in this topic, let’s get back to the basics.
It’s important that you understand what exactly flexibility pertains as there are many misconceptions of its meaning. Additionally, a basic knowledge of physiology and how your body works can help you optimize your stretching, prevent injuries and make the most out of your flexibility routine.
Flexibility is defined as a range of motion of a joint. It also commonly refers to the mobility of the muscles and other parts of our musculoskeletal system.
Flexibility is not defined by our full body’s range of motion. It’s specific for each of our joints or muscle groups. That means it’s possible you have areas in your body that are very tight and inflexible, while you feel like you can lengthen and stretch others with ease.
These imbalances in flexibility are completely normal, and not a thing to worry about if they’re not extreme. They depend on our individual anatomies as well as our lifestyle and how we use our bodies on a day-to-day base.
However, you maybe want to understand why some part of your body begun feeling particularly stiff as you age. There are several factors that lead to those changes.
What Impacts Flexibility?
In the previous sections, we went through some changes that happen in our bodies as we age. Now we will go a bit deeper, to understand how exactly we are affected by these and what we need to focus on to maintain or regain a healthy range of motion.
Many people believe muscles have a major role in flexibility, however they are only half of the equation. Current studies suggest that muscles can be stretched to up to 150 percent of their resting length and that everything above will lead to injury. That’s why muscles aren’t the only tissues we need to work on to increase our range of motion, regardless of age.
- Connective Tissues
Connective tissues are the most abundant tissue in our body, that connect and group our body parts. There are many types of connective tissue, but three of them are most important for flexibility:
- Tendons connect bones to muscle and their role is to transmit force. They are stiff and strong, but they don’t tolerate stretching. They can tear or get loose beyond a 4 percent stretch, which makes us more prone to injuries. To keep your tendons healthy you should occasionally lift heavier weights through a full range of motion.
- Ligaments are similar to tendons in that they are built from collagen. Their function is different – they are binding bones to bones inside joint capsules. Although they can be safely stretched slightly more than tendons, you should still do only gentle stretches. Ligaments which are too stretched can lead to unstable joints. To keep ligaments healthy, make sure you maintain balance of flexibility and strength in your whole body, as they often get injured as a result of a lack of strength or range of motion in another, remote area of the body.
- Muscle Fascia encloses, separates and stabilizes muscles and organs. It makes up 30% of your muscle mass and is one of the most important factors of a healthy range of motion. It can be stretched safely, in fact, it is recommended to do so. The simulation of fascia can lubricate your joints, increase restoration and enhance your mobility and circulation. Fascia responds to gentle stretches which are held for a longer period of time, usually for three to five minutes.
- Stretch Reflex
Stretch reflex is the third factor that can impact your flexibility. It is a muscle contraction that happens with a sudden change in muscle length. Its role is to maintain muscle tone and prevent injuries.
One of the reasons why you should hold stretches for longer is so that the muscle becomes accustomed to the new length. That can reduce the stretch reflex, and allow you to move your muscles to a larger range of motion, on and off the mat.
And although training can decrease or even completely eliminate the stretch reflex, that’s not something you should force. If you don’t control your muscles and don’t stretch mindfully, you could be at a larger risk of injury.
However, it is still good to understand how the stretch reflex works and how it changes with your activities. If you allow it to naturally lower without forcing it, it can be a useful way for noticing increases in flexibility.
How Flexibility Slows Down Aging?
Aging affects flexibility – but flexibility affects aging too.
Now you already know that your tendons, muscles and other tissues become stiffer as you age.
By utilizing stretching exercises a couple of times a week you can regain lost range of motion and maintain flexibility for longer.
The more you’re stretching, the more flexible your connective and muscle tissues will become.
Some effects you will notice are:
- Increased circulation to arms and legs
- Improved muscle control
- A boost in coordination and balance
- Lower risk of injury
- Reduced back and joint pain
- Increased range of motion
- Better Posture
Finally, all these lead to a greater self-confidence and an improved overall health.
How To Improve Flexibility At Any Age?
The quick answer to this question is – you only need patience and dedication.
If you have those, everything else will follow.
However, here are a couple of tips to get you started. They will help you improve flexibility at any age, while staying safe and avoiding strains and injuries:
If you notice your muscles are struggling to keep you in a position, your body could become resistant to stretching (remember the stretch reflex theory).
If you want to open up your body, you need to assure your brain that everything is safe. Always make sure you put yourself in a position which you can comfortably hold for longer periods of time.
To do that, you can make use of tools. Use straps, bands, blankets and anything else that can provide more support to your muscles and allow you to fully relax in a pose.
Pick The Right Stretching Routine
There are many ways you can improve your flexibility. If you feel good in long stretching sessions, feel free to continue doing them. However, remember that flexibility is a lifetime decision – so make sure to pick a class or routine you actually love doing.
Some activities beyond static stretching that can increase your range of motion are tai chi, Pilates, yoga, dancing and resistance band training. These are a great choice as they slowly and naturally help you to regain flexibility, but also because they balance that with increases in strength.
Take It Slowly
Flexibility is a spectrum, and you shouldn’t force going from one extreme to the other. Give your body some time, and slowly go deeper when it feels comfortable and natural. Don’t push through pain and discomfort, as you will do more harm than good to your body.
Don’t Forget To Breathe
As simple as this tip may seem, many people still hold their breath when they stretch. By becoming conscious of your breath, you will feel less discomfort and pain and will be able to relax and deepen your stretches.
Let Go Of Expectations
A common issue when someone is trying to build flexibility is setting unrealistic goals. Goals lead to a temptation to force poses, rather than reaching them gradually. However, this can cause frustration, pain or even injury as you don’t give your body enough time to adapt.
Stay mindful, don’t go beyond the edge and learn to enjoy the process and the stretches themselves, instead of focusing on results.
How Long Does It Take Become Flexible?
You will start to see noticeable differences after 2 to 4 weeks of stretching. It largely depends on how much you stretch and how long are your sessions.
It’s completely understandable visible progress motivates you. Still, you need to see it as a regular practice, used to maintain your range of motion rather than reaching fast results.
By having a short and gentle every day session, you might not notice rapid results, but you are more likely to stick with your routine. And consistency is what will keep your body young and as flexible as it can be.
Can You Become Flexible At Any Age?
The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “becoming flexible”. If you picture yourself doing the splits or putting your legs behind your head, it could happen that you’re not able to do that as you age, regardless of how much you stretch.
However, if your goal is to simply enjoy a healthy and youthful range of motion, then yes, you can regain your flexibility at any age. The loss of is mainly caused by lack of use, so you can turn the process around by starting to challenge your body on an everyday base. Even if you struggle with joint conditions such as arthritis, with correct exercise and a mindful approach, you will see improvements in your flexibility.
Our bodies lose flexibility as we age, and that is a natural process we have to accept. However, if we make stretching a part of our lifestyle, we can maintain and even build flexibility at any age.
To achieve your goals, you need to be consistent and determined. The exact exercise and path you choose is something you should pave on your own, considering things you love and enjoy doing. By doing that, you are more likely to stick with your new decision which will lead to increased flexibility. So don’t be discouraged and don’t force yourself. Just find what you love doing, and start doing it!