Aging, Fitness and Flexibility

van Damme Volvo Splits

Two of the biggest physical issues we face as we age are:

  1. Loss of strength and power (1,2)
  2. Loss of mobility and flexibility (3)

For most people, exercise is a means to improve and maintain their health and well-being (including aesthetic goals).

So it makes absolute sense to focus on preventing or minimising the loss of these physical qualities as much as possible, in order to maximise health and well-being for as long as possible.

One of the best things about the rise in popularity of Crossfit and functional training is the emphasis on explosive movements to develop power.

However, despite this increased popularity, it is still rare to see people in gyms, fitness groups and sports clubs (martial artists and dancers excepted) doing any dedicated and meaningful flexibility work (a couple of quick toe touches before a workout don’t count).

I think this stems from a few different reasons:

  • Flexibility work is hard to monetise (there is no equipment to sell for example, outside of maybe a mat and a strap).
  • Stretching well takes time – people have been sold on 30 minute fitness, which is great, I love short sessions, but not at the expense of what you need.
  • Most people don’t know how to stretch well, so they don’t feel any lasting benefits from doing it and give up.
  • Misinterpretation of the research surround stretching, especially around pre-exercise stretching and force production which has seen a preference for dynamic mobility over more traditional flexibility work.

Use It Or Lose It

Almost everyone will agree that “prevention is better than cure”, and this is especially true with flexibility training.

Like every physical quality, flexibility exists on a “use it or lose it basis”, so if you live a modern life like I do (lots of sitting, very little physically taxing work outside of exercise), then it is very easy to lose.

To combat this, it is essential to work on your flexibility pro-actively.

Optimal Vs Reality

Understanding what is optimal for physical health and fitness, and what can be realistically achieved by someone for whom fitness is a small component of their life is quite important.

For the person who exercises because they have to in order to maintain their health, but they don’t necessarily derive any pleasure from it, the minimal effective dose for flexibility is all that is needed.

This person can regain flexibility by stretching (4), can then maintain it with almost any activity that requires range of motion – for example, a gym based exercise program or tai chi practice.

Additionally, if they make an effort to squat, bend, reach and generally move more in day to day life, then maintenance is that much easier.

Fitness Enthusiasts

For people who spend a lot of time and energy into improving their physical fitness, a specific focus on stretching will be beneficial.

This can take place as part of the warm up, cool down or separate session, as there a pros and cons to each.

For the fitness enthusiast, recreational or even professional athlete, a prime focus on flexibility and it’s associated qualities – motor control and joint stability – is even more important, due to the high loads placed on the body consistently from training and competition.

I believe that stretching is the only physical quality that in relation to it’s training, the saying ‘more is better applies. – physical preparation coach Ian King, whom I have mentioned on this blog previously. (5)

Again, this is a contentious area, as most research doesn’t show a cause-effect relationship when it comes to stretching and injury prevention, but there are many contributing factors, of which flexibility is just one.

Conclusions

You don’t need to turn yourself into Jean Claude van Damme (pictured above at age 53 in a Volvo commercial), but you do need enough flexibility to reach up overhead comfortably, bend down without strain and essentially move without restriction doing the things you do in your day to day life.

If you don’t lead a physically active life, then it is more important to increase your activity – even if you don’t exercise – than worry about specific stretching.

Once you are active, a focus on stretching can really complement whatever it is you are doing.

 

This post is a re-worked version of my May 2016 newsletter. You can sign up below to receive all future editions, plus my upcoming (and FREE) guide to stretching.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



 

References

(1) Strength and muscle loss with aging process

(2) Age associated loss of upper extremity strength and power

(3) Flexibility of older adults and the influence of physical activity

(4) Purely my opinion, eccentric exercises can also be very helpful.

(5) King, I., Legacy – Ian King’s training innovations, King Sports International