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Wellness: Stretch Yourself

Muscles get tight without you even noticing it, especially as you age. Get advice for improving flexibility to stay mobile and prevent injuries.

Gray-haired woman stretches to reach her toes on an exercise mat

If you have ever thrown out your back, you learned – sadly, too late – the value of stretching and maintaining your flexibility.

Staying loose helps keep you mobile, preventing injury and pain, says Doctor of Physical Therapy Matthew Allen. You might not even notice that your muscles are getting tight, something that’s aggravated by inactivity and too many hours spent driving or sitting at a desk.

As you age, “muscles become tighter and tighter and can cause all sorts of pain or dysfunction depending on which muscles are tight, which is why I cannot stress enough how important stretching is for one’s overall well-being and longevity,” Allen said.

Inactive muscles can get weak and constrict, leading to a hunched posture and significant back, shoulder and neck pain. Then, when those same muscles are suddenly called upon to serve a tennis ball or do yardwork, they are abruptly stretched. Ouch.

You can prevent aches and injuries with just a few minutes of medium- or low-intensity stretching, said David Nolan, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

“A lot of people don't understand that stretching has to happen on a regular basis. It should be daily," Nolan said in an article for Harvard Health Publishing. “Regular stretching keeps muscles long, lean and flexible, and this means that exertion won't put too much force on the muscle itself.”

The body has more than 600 muscles but you don’t need to stretch every one. A physical therapist can recommend a regimen that’s tailored to your needs. Need a stretch right now? This routine from the New York Times offers a good place to start.

Try a new stretch two or three times, Allen recommends. And always follow this rule: If stretching hurts, do not push yourself. Stop and get some medical advice before continuing on your journey to better flexibility.

It’s not just older folks who need to stretch. Sports medicine experts recommend dynamic stretching for young athletes. See how it’s done in this video series for teens from Nemours Children’s Health.