Stretch yourself: Remain limber as you age

Laura Williams Bustos 25 July 2022

Laura Williams Bustos explores how stretching can be a great way to stave off the mobility-related problems that may feel inevitable as you age

Brady Peterson, a retired university professor in Texas, had always been active, working out and walking up to 16 kilometres a day. Then, about four years ago, after increasing stiffness and pain in his extremities, the 75-year-old was diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica, an inflammatory disease that can affect every part of the body.

“I couldn’t even raise my arm above my head without it hurting, and just moving around in bed trying to sleep was painful,” he recalls.

"Stretching can stave off many of the mobility-related problems that can be considered inevitable as we age"

Peterson’s rheumatologist wanted to prescribe the steroid prednisone long-term. But Peterson knew it could have significant side effects, ranging from loss of bone density to cataracts.

“I asked my rheumatologist if I could work on an alternative approach before beginning the prednisone,” he says. The doctor agreed and scheduled a follow-up appointment for six months later.

Outdoor yoga class

Joining a yoga class is a great way to make stretching part of your routine

Peterson began meditating and eating better, and focused on stretching. “I rolled out my yoga mat and did poses I learned from videos,” he says. “When I started, I couldn’t do a warrior pose without pain and couldn’t come close to an acceptable triangle pose. But in doing whatever I could, I began stretching every muscle group.”

Why should we stretch?

Stretching can stave off many of the mobility-related problems that can be considered inevitable as we age. Nevertheless, it remains the often-ignored part of an exercise triad that includes cardio and strength training.

Besides maintaining range of motion, “stretching can be helpful in preventing injuries, managing muscle soreness, and allowing for participation in a variety of exercises and physical activities,” says Ryan Glatt, a personal trainer and brain health coach for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.

Woman stretching

Regular stretching can bring many short- and long-term health benefits

However, loss of flexibility caused by injuries early in life, scar tissue, arthritis, or inflammation may be difficult to ease or prevent. Likewise, joint cartilage can wear down over time, which can also contribute to pain and stiffness. Regardless of your age or mobility, stretching can improve flexibility. 

Peterson is a great example of why stretching should be part of your daily life. Not only does it offer short-term comfort and relief, but it can lead to long-term lifestyle benefits.

"Regardless of your age or mobility, stretching can improve flexibility"

“I worked consistently and gradually, and I became more flexible,” he says. When he returned to his rheumatologist half a year later, the doctor agreed he didn’t need the prednisone. Peterson now cycles and hikes, and does strength training with weights.

“The stretching is essential for everything else to work,” he says. “When I stretch my muscles on a regular basis, things like just getting up out of my chair or tying my shoes become movements I don’t have to think about—I just do them. And if I forget to stretch, I can feel the old stiffness whisper in my ear.”

The wakeup twist

  1. First thing in the morning, sit upright in bed, feet flat on the floor, knees and hips bent at 90-degree angles. Roll your shoulders back and look straight ahead.
  2. Place your left hand on the bed, behind and to the outside of your left hip. Place your right hand on your right knee.
  3. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, turn your shoulders to the left and look behind you, twisting your spine while keeping your hips steady. Hold the stretch for five seconds, return to centre and repeat on the right side. Do five twists on each side.

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