How Does Aging Affect How We Should Stretch?

There is plenty of research to compare different stretching techniques to advise us what works and what doesn’t. Stretching provides benefits that include improved flexibility, improved athletic performance, decreased energy expenditure with movement, and injury prevention.  It is also believed that stretching helps to promote healing and possibly reduce the delayed onset of muscle soreness. (1,2)

Research has been done into the effect of  different forces used, different positions, variable frequency and duration, but in the majority of studies the subjects used are between the age of 18 and 40.  The results of this research may therefore not be applicable to those that are older, particularly the elderly, due to age related changes that occur in muscle and connective tissue physiology. These age related physiologic changes that will impact stretching are as follows:

  • increased fibrous connective tissue in joints resulting in stiffness
  • reduced elasticity and strength of soft tissue matrices
  • decreased capacity for healing
  • less capillary blood supply
  • muscle atrophy
  • decreased numbers of mesenchymal stem cells

Musculoskeletal flexibility is in large part due to connective tissue compliance and elasticity. Muscles of older individuals are more susceptible to injury during eccentric contractions (the muscle is lengthened during its contraction)  and are slower to recover from trauma. (3)The diminished capacity for healing and higher risk of injury  is why it is best to use static stretching techniques as opposed to PNF or ballistic techniques in elderly people. A cyclic stretching technique is probably more beneficial for older individuals because of increasing muscle stiffness and collagen deposition that comes with age.

A study done in 2001 amongst 60  healthy people (mean age 84.7, SD=5.6)  with tight hamstrings compared stretching of the hamstrings held for 15, 30 and 60 seconds over a 6 week period.(4)

The results of this study indicated that a sixty second stretch was more effective than a thirty second stretch within this group of elderly individuals. Previous studies with a younger population suggested that a sixty second stretch was just as effective as a thirty second stretch. In this study a sixty second stretch repeated four times, once a day, five times per week for 6 weeks improved hamstring flexibility in people over 70 better than those that stretched 15, or 30 seconds. In this group, however, improvements in range were also seen in those stretching 15 seconds and 30 seconds. In other words a short stretch is better than no stretch, but 60 seconds is optimal.  This study also showed that stretching must be continued if the benefits of stretching are to be maintained over time.

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