As you get older, you may find that your flexibility isn’t what it used to be. Suddenly, sitting on the floor, squatting or tying your shoes takes effort — and maybe a grunt.
Does this mean you need to stretch more?
I’m a big fan of stretching. Stretching feels good — even more so as I age. But it’s not that way for everyone. And stretching what feels tight is not always an effective way to gain flexibility.
A muscle may feel tight without actually being shortened. What benefit is there to stretch just for stretching’s sake?
The tasks listed above require flexibility. But they also require joint mobility and motor control. If you have limited mobility in your hips, pelvis and/or back, stretching your hamstrings will do little to nothing to help you touch your toes.
In order to execute functional tasks like squatting and reaching the floor, you need a balance of mobility, flexibility and motor control — not just one of these things. Aging impacts them all.
Mobility and flexibility are not the same things.
Mobility is a joint’s ability to move through its full range of motion. Anyone who has experienced a fracture or serious injury knows what I’m talking about. If you break your ankle, getting mobility back is tough! You may need professional hands to mobilize your joints and regain function.
Flexibility is the ability of your muscles and soft tissues (tendons, fascia….) to elongate through your joint’s available range of motion. It’s what most people consider a benefit of yoga. Yoga helps with mobility and motor control too (and so much more), but people often start doing yoga because they want to become more flexible. And that they do — in body and mind.
Motor control is your nervous system’s ability to regulate and direct movement appropriate for a specific task. This is essential when training for a sport. You can strengthen all you want, but if you don’t move efficiently, it is just a matter of time before you hurt yourself.
If you move with ease and feel good doing it, chances are you already have a balance of flexibility, mobility and motor control. But when movements that were once easy begin to feel difficult or you feel stiff and awkward doing them, you are probably slipping in one of these areas.
It’s not always easy to know which it is, but the source often reveals itself in time. If stretching doesn’t feel good, or doesn’t help you perform a specific task better, why keep doing it?
Your flexibility problem may not be tight muscles
Below are five common reasons you may feel tight and what to do about it.
- You don’t move enough
Many of us sit on our butts for a good portion of the day. This can cause what’s called adaptive shortening (when the muscles that flex your hips and knees become shortened). You will also have weak gluteal muscles from sitting on them. You may appreciate this when you stand up after sitting for hours.
Stand up desks are a great tool, but standing isn’t the fix all. You need to get up, move your joints and increase circulation. Stretching what feels tight may help, but what matters more is the frequency you change positions and what you do when you are not at work.
2. You have muscle imbalance
The job of our muscles is to move our limbs and to help stabilize (and move) our joints. If we perform the same tasks and are in the same unnatural positions each day, we develop muscle imbalances. This is true for elite athletes that develop muscle dominance as part of their sports and for the average person who doesn’t move their body in all the ways it is capable.
The shortened muscle group will move the bone it attaches to closer to its origin, altering joint alignment. The opposing muscle will lengthen as it attempts to pull that bone back to its optimal position. If we stretch the muscles in our body that feel tight without also strengthening the opposing muscles, our efforts will be short-lived, or worse, detrimental.
3. Your joints are losing their mojo
Arthritis is not just a disorder or disease for the older person. Younger athletes develop arthritis from the wear and tear that the repetitive movements of their sports require. A history of injury may also cause your joints to degenerate prematurely. As a joint becomes unstable and/or stiff because of losing the static stability and cushion that cartilage provides, the muscles that cross that joint will work harder to compensate. Stretching doesn’t always help.
Arthritic joints don’t move like healthy joints. There is an inflammatory aspect to arthritis. Stretching the muscles that cross an arthritic joint rarely feels good on the irritated joint or the strained muscles. It is more effective to move the joint in a pain-free range, often, and to strengthen the muscles that support the joint in a way that isn’t stressful.
Exercise such as therapeutic Pilates, Tai Chi, gentle yoga, Qigong and similar movement practices may benefit joint health more than stretching alone.
4. You had an injury or repetitive micro trauma
If you have had surgery, you know what scar tissue is. It’s that thick, non-pliable tissue that doesn’t like to be pulled on. Scar tissue can also form with micro traumas like repetitive strain or an actual injury. Tendonitis and its successor, tendonopathy are good examples of the effects of repetitive strain. The tissue becomes inflamed and develops irregular strands of collagen and thickness. While stretching may help sometimes, it is rarely the solution. What you end up stretching is the tissue on either side of the scarring, not the scar tissue itself.
Should you still stretch scar tissue? I would say yes, if it feels good and helps you to move better. It may be more effective to use tools such as a foam roller, dry needling, acupuncture, laser therapy and deeper fascia work such as Rolfing. Increasing blood flow to the area is important and doing this solely through stretching is not likely to help.
5. Your parents passed on their DNA
Being inflexible or being too flexible are both not optimal and (mostly) determined by your genes. If you had to choose, being less flexible is better. Too much flexibility can lead to injury when your joints get challenged at the end of their range. If you fall into either category (too much or too little) you could blame your parents, but where will that get you? Learning how to stay strong and maintain control throughout your available joint range of motion will help you stay injury and pain free.
If you aren’t sure how to squat properly or what controlled movement looks like, find a knowledgeable fitness professional who can assess the way you move and help you do the tasks you struggle with more safely and efficiently. Physical therapists, chiropractors and some highly trained personal trainers can access movement and dysfunction and can help you design an appropriate strengthening and mobility program for your body.
You may discover some techniques to address dysfunction yourself. If you have trouble bringing your foot up to tie your shoe, for example, a stretch that mimics this activity makes sense — as long as it feels good.
Stiffness does not mean you need to stretch. Tightness does not mean your muscles are short. And being inflexible does not mean you should push harder. Understanding how to move effectively and efficiently will be of more benefit than stretching for joint health and improving mobility long term.
What you eat, how much you sleep and the activities you choose will also impact your overall health and the health of your joints.
Flexibility may have less to do with your ability to bend and more to do with your ability to move well, in a controlled manner and within the confines of your structure.
Stretching may be exactly what you need, but it’s rarely they only thing you need to stay flexible. So should you stretch just for stretching’s sake? Yes, give it a try! But adding variety to your fitness routine is often the key to feeling better and moving well.