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How to Maintain Flexibility as You Age

Tips from Martina Navratilova on preventing injury, stress and muscle soreness

Has your body ever felt like a brittle old plastic bottle that's been bleached in the sun? Do you find it difficult to touch your toes?

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If so, you may be losing flexibility. Flexibility means your muscles and joints "give" and have a full range of motion. Maintaining flexibility is an important component of a balanced fitness program, but as we age, it can become increasingly difficult to stay flexible.

Because I'm in my 50s, I'm very concerned about flexibility. I know how much it helps me recover from tough matches or workouts and prepare for exercise the next day. And there are other benefits, too. Staying flexible can help you prevent injury, as well as avoid muscle knots and tightness brought on by daily activities. It improves your posture, reduces stress, and generally keeps your body feeling youthful and agile.

You can increase your flexibility by taking yoga, Pilates or tai chi classes. These are fun, meditative and help relieve stress. You can also follow a good stretching program. There are lots of flexibility exercises, and most are very good.

One way I like to stretch is with an exercise toy called a foam roller. You can find them at most sporting goods stores. Using your own body weight, a foam roller stretches and relaxes the fascia — connective tissue surrounding muscles and other body structures — which can tighten through injury or overuse. By rolling an area of your body along the foam roller, you can relax tight areas and improve blood flow to your muscles in the process. It might take some practice, and be sure to check with your doctor before using the tool.

woman stretching

Maintaining flexibility as you age is key to preventing injury. — Photo by Absodels/Getty Images

Most experts agree that the best time to stretch a muscle is after exercise, when your muscles are warm and blood is circulating through your body. Trying to stretch a cold muscle invites injury and damage to your body. Here are some other stretching tips:

  • Begin your workout with a five- to 10-minute warm-up on cardiovascular equipment, such as a stationary bicycle, or by taking a short walk. This will increase your body temperature and warm up your muscles. Follow that with some stretches to hit individual muscles such as your hamstrings, thighs and shoulders.

  • Stretch after exercise, as part of your cooldown. The purpose of a cooldown is simply to give your body a chance to gradually slow down heart rate, reduce blood pressure and core temperature, and relax your breathing.

  • Do not bounce while you stretch. Bouncing invites your muscles to protect against overstretching by tightening up.

  • Keep breathing. Do not hold your breath while stretching. Keep your breathing even and consistent to help relax your body.

  • Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds, and stretch each muscle group.

  • Stretching shouldn't hurt. At first, you might notice some minor discomfort as you stretch inflexible muscles. But if it feels painful, you're likely pushing yourself too far.

  • Luckily, stretching for 10 to 15 minutes a day will help you regain your range of motion, make your joints more malleable and rejuvenate your body.

You may also like: Martina Navratilova interviews Elton John.

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