In our 20s we pop in for a HIIT class and sneak out before the cool down. We sit all day at work with few breaks and never feel any ill effects.
We enter our 30s and suddenly these habits leave us with a sore back, neck pain and muscle tightness. Why does it seem like stretching becomes a necessity once you hit 30? Is it three decades of wear and tear catching up with us? Or is something else going on?
“Age-related changes definitely do occur yearly, but more distinctly with different decades,” Karena Wu, physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York City and India, told TODAY. “When we are younger, we have more collagen and elastin that keeps our bodies firm, more resilient and with a better ability to rebound. With age, comes increased wear and tear.”
When you hit age 30 and beyond, a change occurs physiologically called sarcopenia, said Wu. “That means that your muscle tissue starts to diminish due to aging … We inherently get more weak and lose our stamina so our bodies have to work harder to maintain the base level of fitness and to perform exercises and we feel the effects of exercises more.”
This change can result in increased pain and risk of injury. In her private practice, Wu said that she sees a lot of sports injuries among this age group. “Especially in the low back, shoulders and knees and also postural-related issues from being more sedentary or from working out without appropriate stretching or cooling down,” she added.
So what’s the solution? Are we just doomed to a less flexible more painful existence once we enter our 30s? Thankfully, no. But it does mean we need to incorporate proper stretching and mobility work into our routine.
“Mobility exercises and stability exercises are key,” said Wu. “Making sure the bones move appropriately with the support of the deep stabilizer muscles will help alleviate the aches and pain in our 30s when we activate our global muscles to function and move.” Global muscles are the large muscles responsible for movement, like the rectus abdominis, obliques and quadriceps.
Why is stretching so important?
“Flexibility or stretching is important because it helps maintain homeostasis in the muscle/tendon tissues,” Wu explained. “Muscles have an optimal resting level where the muscle tissue is not too short or not too long. If you work out too much, you can shorten your tissues. If you are too sedentary with poor posture, you can shorten some tissues and lengthen the opposite tissues. In both extreme ends of the spectrum, you make your muscle tissues work too hard and they become less effective for movement. So, if you do not stretch, you can add more compression into the joints and potentially cause injury if you overstretch the muscle during an activity.”
Stretching is an import activity regardless of age, but the type of stretching we need does shift as we get older. “Static stretches are important for lengthening the tissue. Dynamic stretches are important for lengthening and warming up the tissue for activity,” said Wu. “Older people can complain of more stiffness and tightness so dynamically moving gets the blood pumping into the area to reduce the discomfort from stretching a muscle 'cold.'”
Do these 5 stretches every day
Here are a few stretches that Wu recommended. They will help you show a little TLC to areas of the body that tighten up as we age like the hips, calves and back.
- Downward dog to upward dog. This is a good example of a dynamic stretch. “I am a huge fan of the downward dog to upward dog stretch as it stretches the entire posterior and then anterior chain,” said Wu. “It also elongates the spine and is a good shoulder and arm strengthening exercise all in one.”
- Calf stretch. You may not think the calf is an especially important area of the body to focus your efforts on, but “the calf is used daily when we are on our feet walking around and is also the only muscle during quiet standing that is still active (still contracting so we don't fall flat on our face!),” said Wu. She recommended the runner's stretch, which targets the more superficial calf muscle.
Place both hands on the wall, standing in a forward lunge position with toes pointing forward. Shift the weight forward onto the front leg, bending the knee, and keep the back leg straight, heel down. Then switch sides.
- Low lunge. The lunge not only gives you an additional calf stretch, but also stretches the hip flexors. “The hip flexor is the muscle on the front of the hip that can get very short and tight from sitting and can affect how the low back and hip muscles function,” said Wu.
- Figure four. Another stretch for the hips, Wu said the figure four stretch should be felt in the back of the buttock and can be done standing or sitting.
- Side bends: “Latissimus dorsi stretches (side-bending the trunk) are excellent as they affect the low back, shoulders and even ribs for thoracic mobility and breathing!” Wu said.
Dynamic stretching (where you are moving through the stretches versus holding them) is a great way to warm up before a workout. If you feel like you don't have any extra time to add stretching to your day, start with just five minutes. Adding a short stretch to your morning routine can help get your blood flowing before you start your day or spend five minutes stretching at night to wind down before bed.