It's important for people of all ages to stretch daily. Not only does stretching improve your range of motion, but it also lengthens your muscles. That’s a great way to decrease your risk of injury, joint pain, and muscle damage the next time you exercise. This is particularly helpful for older adults. We all tend to lose mobility and become more prone to injury as we age, so a lifelong stretching routine allows us to maintain flexibility.
The American Physical Therapy Association Book of Body Maintenance and Repair authors Marilyn Moffat and Steve Vickery explain, "Physical therapists frequently find that the problems they treat could easily have been prevented had the patient taken some relatively simple precautionary steps." (7) In this article, we'll outline evidence-based practices to help you to avoid muscle damage, injury, and problematic health conditions.
No matter what type of exercise you do, you’ll benefit from stretching. After you exercise, spend fifteen to twenty minutes stretching your muscles for optimal recovery. Hold each stretch for thirty seconds, and extend the stretch to the point of tension but not pain. Remain still as you perform static stretches, avoiding the urge to bounce or fidget.
The Upper Body
Did you know that back pain is the most common cause of "loss of activity" in adults under 45? (Moffat and Vickery 13) No matter your age, stretching your upper back, lower back, shoulders, and neck should be a part of your daily routine.
To stretch your upper back, clasp one hand on top of the other in front of your body. Extend your hands and straighten your arms. Round your back so that your shoulder blades stretch away from each other, bending your head forward.
As long as you don't suffer from osteoporosis, you can stretch your lower back with a knee-to-chest stretch. Begin by lying on your back on a flat surface with your heels facing towards the ground. Gently pull your left knee towards the left side of your chest until you feel a small amount of tension in your lower back. Keep the right leg relaxed and hold this position for thirty seconds before releasing your left leg and pulling your right leg to the right side of your chest. Hold for the same amount of time.
Bring your right arm across your body and pull it towards your body with your left arm. Your left arm should be perpendicular to your right arm, near the right elbow. After holding for thirty seconds, switch sides.
To stretch your neck, tilt your head slightly down and lean your head to the right side. With your right hand, pull your head down to assist the stretch. Be gentle and don't put too much pressure on your neck. After thirty seconds, switch to stretch the other side.
The Lower Body
Stretching the lower body can benefit the old and young alike. We recommend these stretching exercises for seniors because limber legs can help you improve your balance and avoid falls. For younger people, keeping the muscle groups in your lower body supple will improve your running form and your walking posture.
Before you stretch your right hip flexor, place a towel under your right knee. Kneel on your right knee with your left foot bent at a ninety-degree angle in front of you. Place your left foot a hip-width distance to the left so that you don't lose your balance. You can also place your left hand on your left leg for stability. With your right hand, check your hip to make sure you're not bending forward at the waist. Lean into your front left leg until you feel a stretch in your right hip and thigh. After static stretching, switch to the other leg.
Stand near a sturdy chair or a wall. To stretch your left quadricep, steady yourself (using the chair or wall) with your right hand. Lift your left foot off the ground and try to grab your ankle with your left hand. Pull your heal up and back until you feel a stretch, making sure to maintain a tight core. Keep your knees close together while you hold the pose. Switch sides.
To perform a hamstring stretch, we recommend lying with your back on a level floor, halfway through a doorframe. When stretching your left leg, the doorframe should be close to your left knee or thigh (moving your hip closer to the doorframe as you become more flexible). Lift your left leg and rest your left heel against the doorframe. Straighten your heel, moving up the doorframe slowly, until you feel a stretch in the back of your leg. Switch legs, moving closer to the right side of the doorframe.
Get into a position about an arm's length from a wall. Place your right foot in front of your left. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and facing forward towards the wall. Place your hands on the wall for support. Next, bend your right knee forward, keeping your knees and hips straight and your heels on the floor. You should feel the stretch in the back of your lower leg. If you don't feel a stretch, you can increase the distance between your back foot and the wall. Switch legs after holding the stretch.
Other Ways to Avoid Injury
In addition to stretching, you can take other steps to avoid injury, poor form, and fatigue. Develop a routine that involves both warm-up and recovery to get the most from your exercise.
Warm Up Before Physical Activity
According to Harvard Health Letter, "We used to believe that stretching was necessary to warm up the muscles and prepare them for activity. However, mounting research has shown that stretching the muscles before they're warmed up can actually hurt them." The best way to prepare your muscles for exercise is to engage in ten minutes of light exercise or walking before you begin your strength training, cardio, or interval training routine. This warm up period gives your muscles and joints a chance to loosen naturally without any risk of tearing.
Wear Compression Socks
Studies show that one of the best ways to minimize your recovery time after a workout is to wear compression socks. We recommend wearing a graduated style during your workout and stretching routine—and for at least a few hours after a moderate workout.
One study, done in Australia in 2015, showed the impact of wearing compression socks during the 48 hour period following a marathon. Even though the subjects only wore compression socks in the two days immediately following strenuous exercise, they showed a significantly improved performance two weeks later compared to a placebo group. While this study focused on runners, similar experiments have shown the effectiveness of compression garments on functional recovery for netball, volleyball, and cycling (Higgins, Kraemer, de Glanville).
Compression socks also reduce your risk of developing venous disorders, including chronic venous insufficiency and deep vein thrombosis. Since elderly adults are particularly vulnerable to these conditions, compression socks offer support beyond the exercise mat. For people of all ages, compression socks stop your legs from swelling, which can prevent dangerous stumbles and poor walking and running form.
Learn more about how compression socks can be beneficial for athletes.
Armstrong, Stuart A., Till, Eloise S., Maloney, Stephen, & Harris, Gregory A. "Compression Socks and Functional Recovery Following Marathon Running." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Vol. 29, Iss. 2, 2015, pp. 528-533, https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2015/02000/Compression_Socks_and_Functional_Recovery.30.aspx.
de Glanville, Kieran M., and Michael J. Hamlin. “Positive effect of lower body compression garments on subsequent 40-kM cycling time trial performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 26, iss. 2, 2012, pp. 480-486, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22240553/.
"Healthy Upper Back: Exercises." Kaiser Permanente. Healthwise, Incorporated, 2 Mar. 2020, healthy.kaiserpermanente.org/health-wellness/health-encyclopedia/he.healthy-upper-back-exercises.zp4447.
Higgins, Trevor et al. “Effects of wearing compression garments on physiological and performance measures in a simulated game-specific circuit for netball.” Journal of science and medicine in sport, vol. 12, iss. 1, 2009, pp. 223-226, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18078789/.
Kraemer, WJ, Bush, JA, Bauer, JA, Triplett-McBride, NT, Paxton, NJ, Clemson, A, Koziris, LP, Mangino, LC, Fry, AC, and Newton, RU. "Influence of compression garments on vertical jump performance in NCAA Division I volleyball players." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol.1, iss. 3, 1996, pp. 180-183, https://insights.ovid.com/strength-conditioning-research/jscr/1996/08/000/influence-compression-garments-vertical-jump/9/00124278.
Moffat, Marilyn, and Steve Vickery. The American Physical Therapy Association Book of Body Maintenance and Repair. Holt Paperbacks, 1999.
“Slide Show: A Guide to Basic Stretches.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 7 Feb. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/multimedia/stretching/sls-20076840.
“The Importance of Stretching.” Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing, Sept. 2013, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-importance-of-stretching.