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Aging, balance and flexibility

No doubt if you are advancing in years you may find that keeping your balance and staying flexible are becoming increasingly difficult and yet, we know, also increasingly important, in order to avoid falls and the downhill spiral that taking a tumble can initiate.

Aging is often accompanied by decreased balance, muscular strength and flexibility. The loss of muscle elasticity causes muscles to become tighter and shorter. Declining vision and sometimes the prescription drugs that one takes as an older person can lead to loss of balance issues and the result is falling on weakened, old, brittle bones that can’t withstand the impact.

However, there are methods of improving balance and flexibility as well as strength in order to approach the senior years with confidence and vitality.

Methods of stretching include static stretching, dynamic stretching, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Static stretching is typically a held stretch that places the muscle in it most stretched position and held there for at least 20 seconds.

This type of stretch is best used at the end of exercise when the muscle is already warm and more fluid. Dynamic stretching is a stretch that takes the muscle through its range of motion and typically is used as a warmup exercise. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation is usually done with a trainer or a therapist and involves movement around a joint in several planes.

According to most researchers, slow gentle stretching is the most effective for increasing range of motion. This is because muscles and tendons have microscopic organelles that resist a stretch as a protective mechanism. Easing into the stretch allows these protective functions to be somewhat overridden and a stretch completed.

The stretch should be taken to the point of feeling the stretch but not painful. Although there are not specific guidelines for frequency, type and time of stretching as there are for other parameters of fitness such as aerobic or strength training sessions, most experts agree that including a stretching regime into the regular fitness schedule is beneficial for the maintenance of strength, improvements in flexibility, range of motion and blood flow, relaxation and a sense of well-being.

The 2009 American College of Sports Medicine states that there is a lack of studies on the effects of range of motion exercises including flexibility outcomes in the older populations and a lack of consensus regarding the prescription of stretching exercises for older adults.

In my practice, the inclusion of flexibility and balance exercises is a mandate and each session includes such protocols in order to achieve maximum performance not just in the gym but also in the functions of everyday living. This is termed functional fitness.

Gait and balance issues are common in older adults and are a common cause of falls leading to a loss of function and even morbidity and mortality. Common causes of a loss of balance or changes in gait are osteoarthritis or the use of blood pressure lowering medications.

Other causes of poor balance and falls are poor fitting glasses, the need for an updated prescription of eyeglasses, and poor housekeeping such as loose scatter rugs or debris on the floor. Stairways should be clear, well-lit and have handrails. Pets should be trained to not be underfoot and safety should be of prime importance in all aspects of senior living.

Of course, there are medical conditions which can also account for changes in gait and balance and these changes should be reported to one’s health care provider for an assessment. The use of mobility aids such as a walker or a cane can help stabilize and reduce the load on a painful joint.

Most importantly, movement even though it may be somewhat painful or difficult and working to strengthen weak muscles and joints will help improve the conditions rather than letting the situation go from bad to worse.

Exercising in specific elder groups which focus on the very issues that are common among the elderly, or working specifically with a certified personal fitness trainer or physical therapist to address these balance, strength and flexibility concerns will add spring to your step and increase your functional fitness.

Consistency is the key. Aging well is possible, it is not a set of negative inevitabilities.

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Dr. Jane Riley, Ed.D., is a certified personal fitness trainer, nutritional adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com, 212-8119 cell/text and www.janerileyfitness.com

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