Despite at long last, being allocated more attention these days, the two elements of fitness that are still not targeted anywhere near enough, are flexibility and even more so again, especially in older individuals...balance.
This may be because of various conflicting information regarding their importance or overall relevance, but both play a vital role in complete fitness and efficient physical functioning, most particularly in older individuals of 45 plus. In a resting state, tight overly contracted muscles can contribute to a vast myriad of problems from significant back pain to unreasonable difficulty in performing even the simplest of tasks, such as putting objects into overhead cupboards. Whilst poor and inefficient balance is well known for increasing the risk of falls in very elderly individuals, be advised that it can also covertly contribute to compromised physical capabilities in the middle aged and even younger individuals.
Fortunately, it is comparatively easy to work on both flexibility and balance, but endeavour to travel forward along the path that best suits your personal physiology. By a long chalk, we are most certainly not all created equal, and that applies to each person's flexibility and balance potential. What works well for one individual's physiology, may cause obvious significant problems or initiate subtle ones for someone else's body; and that scenario is affected further still by the male and female gender physiological differences, women being on average ... 7% more flexible than men.
To improve flexibility; stretching or appropriately applied movement through a joint's complete range of motion, will work to increase that joint range and also prevent loss of motion. To stretch a muscle, it should be put in a position that produces a mild pull on that muscle but NEVER to the point of pain. For a static stretch, the position in which only a slight stretch/mild pull is felt, should be held for 45-60 seconds. The most important factor regarding any stretch position, is that it should never cause pain/extreme discomfort, or take the joint past it's normal range of motion. There are several forms of dynamic stretching, with the key difference being that dynamic stretches take the joint and muscles through the full range of motion rapidly at speed, but over the past 47 years of my 'hands on" work in this field, I have seen dynamic stretches cause profoundly more problems than they've ever solved in all age brackets, but most especially in the 45s and above.
So I would very strongly indeed ... advise the 45 plus age group, to actively avoid dynamic stretching and only employ static stretching techniques.
Various recommendations advise that stretching activities should be performed at least twice weekly, but in realistically progressive truth, if you're very stiff and have lost some joint motion, stretching activities should actually be done daily. The muscles most often tightly restricted are the rear upper thighs, spinal, shoulder and chest muscles. Each of these can be stretched using different positions, and some general motions may stretch more than one muscle group. However, with the 45s plus age group in particular, finding precisely the right stretches for the specific individual's personal capability is a truly great progress and safety advantage, as compared to just randomly choosing some stretches and doing them. By no means, are all rear upper thigh, spinal, shoulder and chest stretches right for anybody and everybody to perform, as individual/hereditary factors play a prominent part in choosing the right stretches for the bodily uniqueness of the individual concerned. So wherever you are in the UK, try to enlist the expertise of a realistically well qualified movement professional, to analyse your Biomechanics and determine the precise stretch techniques that are appropriate and safe for your body.
Problems with tripping or falling often can indicate obvious difficulty with balance, but under normal circumstances for a static/unmoving postural balance, you should be able to stand unsupported on one leg for at least 20 seconds. Balance activities can be started with simple position shifts for those that already have balance issues. That shifting should take place in all directions, including angles, with different placements of the feet, as improving balance requires regular and assiduous continuity of attention. You can achieve this by increasing the number of repetitions or the length of a balance activity, gradually adding safely applied more demanding movement, or, reduce input from other senses (sensory deprivation) by closing the eyes.
In addition, the degree of support from the arms holding onto something can be reduced by first using both hands, then only one hand, then one finger, and finally to no assistance at all, and such development structures can be performed two days a week. Again, guidance from someone with credibly in-depth training in Exercise Biomechanics and Human Movement is your best guide for finding your safest and most progressive way forward, so wherever you are in the UK, try to find a professional of this nature. However do bear in mind, that personal trainer courses do not provide training which is even remotely near the depth and scope of expertise required for guiding someone in such endeavours.
Other activities can also be used for flexibility and balance development. Tai Chi can be effective for balance functioning , because it uses multiple types of weight shifting, as well as standing on one leg for short periods of time. Yoga also has some advantages via different body positions and more sustained holds, thus helping static balance and flexibility. However do be aware here, that over time it's possible for Yoga to actually cause joint articulation issues, if it is not simultaneously combined with strength training, and that condition is clinically referred to as 'capsular laxity', if you want to look it up. The key to any truly successful stretching or balance program, is it being precisely right for your
personally individual joint and muscle structure; not pursued via a succession of randomly chosen techniques. Perform them regularly with careful control, and NEVER take anything to the point of pain or significantly high levels of discomfort.
Biomechanist Alan Gordon. MSc. BSc. (Hons 1st) Fitness - Medical & Human Movement Analyst
Article kindly contributed by Alan Gordon Health