Health & Fitness

Stretching may improve shrinking muscles, tendons

Hitting middle age can be a shrinking experience. You're usually less active, so you don't use your muscles as much; or move the tendons that hold those muscles to your bones. The result is that they contract, or shrink. Boomers don't bend their joints as much, so the ligaments that hold bones together also contracts, and, you guessed it, those ligaments shrink too.

This contraction of connective tissue is not the reason boomers typically start losing height — that's most often due to a shortening of the spine and other bones from mineral loss, AND it actually starts in the youthful 40s.

But the shrinkage of connective tissue does something much worse than make boomers shorter: It limits your range of motion, or ROM. If you can't move your arm forward as a counter balance when you accidently lean too far backward, that increases your chances of a fall. If your finger tendons are contracted, you won't have the ROM to grip an object tightly — and the glass holding your beverage tips over, causing a great flurry of wipe-up activity and embarrassment.

This tissue contraction is simple to fix. Plus, it's important to do it, because shrunken connective tissue affects your balance as well as your grip; it shortens your reach and makes such everyday activities as walking or even taking care of bathroom needs much more difficult.

The one word solution to fixing contracted connective tissue? Stretching.

All soft tissues, whether muscles or tendons and ligaments, are made up of fibers pressed tightly against each other to make a solid surface. But in movement, these fibers stretch and contract. If they're flexible, they even slide past each other. The flexibility, which comes from regular and consistent stretching, also allows the tissue as a whole to have a greater ROM. Your hip flexors can more easily reach to take a step up a steep stair or lift the leg to a high step to easily get into a big pickup truck. You can take the long easy steps of youth, rather than the tiny shuffling steps and movements that are a sign of age.

If you haven't done a regular stretching program in a while, especially if you're fairly sedentary (spending most of your time sitting, either at home or in an office), you'll need to start your stretching program off very easily.

Here are a few important stretches. Start with toe touches, which stretch the large muscles at the back of the thigh. Stand with feet shoulder width apart, bend over at the hips while keeping your spine straight, and let your arms hang down, very relaxed. The weight of your upper body will do the stretching work. Hold the position for two to three minutes without trying to push your fingers down to the floor. That's for later, after the muscles and tendons have already become more flexible.

Next, sit in a chair with a firm, not cushion-y, seat. Put your hands on your upper right thigh. Using gentle pressure, twist your upper body towards your right shoulder, pulling with your hands to increase the stretch. Hold for one minute, then do the same thing on your left side. This stretches the lower back muscles, and often relieves that nagging backache many boomers frequently have in the morning.

For fingers, place your hand on a flat surface, and with all fingers touching that surface, bend your wrist and the rest of your hand upright. Next, do the other hand. Complete your finger flexibility stretch by using one hand to stretch each of the fingers of the other hand individually. Put your thumb on the mid-knuckle and gently bend each finger backwards, using the thumb as a sort of fulcrum to stretch the tissues in each finger.

Other important areas to stretch are the shoulders, hip flexors (groin), front of the thighs (quadriceps) and upper back. You can find stretching information in books or online. Having a more flexible body is not only better for your overall health, it makes you much more comfortable in everyday life.

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