Here’s Why We Lose Flexibility As We Age — And How to Get It Back
Even if you weren’t exactly in line for the Olympic gymnastics team as a kid, chances are you look back on those days as ones of your peak flexibility. Like running, remembering things, and making friends, bending gradually gets harder as you age. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to keep your flex! Here’s why you lose your bendiness — and how to get it back.
Why Your Flexibility Stalls
As though going through puberty weren’t enough of a struggle, it’s also the time when you start to lose your natural flexibility. “No one is more flexible in their life than they are as a child,” says Dr. Leython Williams, a doctor of physical therapy at Athletico Physical Therapy. “However, during puberty, children often become temporarily less flexible. Some children have slow growth spurts, while others grow very quickly. This temporary decrease in muscle length/flexibility is a result of their bones growing faster than their muscles and tendons can stretch.”
Note that Dr. Williams refers to this particular loss of flexibility as temporary — meaning we can’t blame puberty for the fact our toes seem to be getting farther away every time we try to touch them. “There is no specific age when we wake up and our flexibility has ‘officially declined.’ However, it is a fact that as we age our flexibility decreases, which leads to decreased functional ability and mobility,” he explains. “As our bodies get older, we lose a small amount of flexibility as a result of the normal aging processes. There is loss of water in our tissues and intervertebral discs, increased stiffness in our joints, and a loss of elasticity in muscles and tendons. In our 20s and 30s, it is important that we develop a consistent static and dynamic stretching regimen to establish and maintain flexibility and range of motion more easily into our older years.”
That’s right: What you do now matters later. And this isn’t just about keeping up in yoga, Dr. Williams cautions. “It becomes imperative that we stretch regularly to decrease our likelihood of various injuries.” Jill Belland, co-founder of Barre Belle, agrees. “It’s easy to feel invincible if you’re young and injury free! Flexibility will reduce your risk of injury: What doesn’t bend will break. Increased range of motion, balance, and mobility are all linked to flexibility and contribute to overall strength and fitness.”
How to Get It Back
When you’re a kid, flexibility comes naturally; when you’re an adult, you have to take responsibility for improving and maintaining it. “Peak flexibility age for adults can differ person to person and depends largely on their physical activity habits,” says Dr. Rachelle Reed, PhD, Pure Barre’s manager of training development and barre kinesiologist. “Notably, flexibility can be improved at any age when flexibility training is incorporated into a regular exercise routine. It’s important for adults to be strategic about including flexibility training into their workouts, because maintaining flexibility and physical function as we move into middle and older adulthood is associated with better quality of life and independent living.”
There’s no one flexibility standard everyone has to meet, Belland reassures: “There is no golden rule for what perfect flexibility is person to person, but there are simple markers such as touching your toes from a forward fold for hamstrings/lower back, or reaching for your hands behind your back, with one hand behind the head and the other behind the waist, for shoulder mobility. You don’t need to be a contortionist; moving around with fluidity in your everyday life and having good range of motion in your favorite activities without feeling pain or tension is a better way to gauge your own personal goals.”
But where do you start if you want to improve your flexibility? Dr. Reed explains, “There are two main types of flexibility training that you should aim to incorporate into your routine: Dynamic stretching, where a stretch is performed by moving through a challenging but attainable range of motion several times in a row, and static stretching, where a stretch is held in a challenging but attainable position for a longer period of time (at least 10-30 seconds).”
How do you know how far to go? “Our muscles have a natural stretch reflex that prevents us from going too far into a stretch, which can also cause injury,” Belland tells us. “Aim to gently stretch through this reflex. The key to increasing flexibility is about time under tension: It takes around 20 seconds to ease through the stretch reflex. Reintroduce the stretch and hold it for 10 seconds longer, working up to one minute. The second time you introduce a stretch, the stretch reflex will diminish, allowing your body to get deeper into your stretch and also building better muscle memory.” If you’re still worried about injuring yourself — especially if you’ve been injured in the past — Dr. Williams recommends seeing a physical therapist for guided stretches. Belland reminds us that you don’t have to go to the gym or spend hours on stretching. “Stretch a little bit every day when you can fit it in after a workout or in front of the TV. If you just don’t think you’ll stretch on your own, getting to a yoga or a barre class is helpful if you need the accountability of a dedicated time and space.”
Speaking of the gym, just as your phys ed teacher told you, stretching is especially important before and after a workout. “Far too often active individuals begin their workouts without a dynamic stretch,” Dr. Williams says. “Dynamic stretching increases one’s range of movement and blood flow to soft tissues prior to physical exertion and/or sport performance. This type of stretching is vital in improving performance and reducing the risk for injury.” But you don’t have to be an athlete to benefit — in fact, stretching is an important antidote to all that sitting those of us with desk-based jobs tend to do. “Sitting at your desk all day can lead to decreased flexibility in hip flexors and hamstrings by keeping them in a shortened position for a prolonged period of time,” Dr. Williams warns. “Consider a standing desk or work station or taking several breaks throughout your work day to stand up and stretch.”
Instead of looking back on your kid-level flexibility as a long-ago dream, mix in a little bit of stretching into your new daily routine. You might never get your legs behind your head, but your older self will thank you for it.
(Photos via Getty)