Flexibility and Balance

Despite being given a lot more attention these days ( at last!) two elements of fitness that are still not targeted anywhere near enough are flexibility and even more so, especially in older individuals…. balance.

This may be because of various  conflicting information regarding their importance or relevance, but both play a vital role in overall fitness and efficient physical functioning, most particularly in older individuals of 45 plus. In a resting state, tight overly contracted muscles can contribute to a vast myriad of problems from significant back pain to difficulty performing even the simplest of tasks, such as putting objects into overhead cupboards.Whilst poor and inefficient balance is well known for increasing the risk of falls in very elderly individuals, it can also affect physical capabilities in middle aged and even younger individuals. Fortunately, it is comparatively easy to work on both flexibility and balance as long as you travel forward along the path that suits your personal physiology. By a long chalk, we are most certainly not all created equal and that applies to each person’s flexibility and balance potential.What works well for one individual’s physiology , can cause obvious significant problems or initiate subtle ones for someone else’s body; and that scenario is affected further still by the male and female gender differences. 
To improve flexibility; stretching or appropriately applied movement through a joint’s complete range of motion will work to increase joint range and also prevent loss of motion. To stretch a muscle, it should be put in a position that produces a mild pull on that muscle but NEVER to the point of pain. For a static stretch, the position in which only a slight stretch/mild pull is felt, should be held for 45-60 seconds. Most importantly regarding any stretch position, is that it should never cause pain/extreme discomfort or take the joint past the normal range of motion.There are several forms of dynamic stretching, with the key difference being that dynamic stretches take the joint and muscles through the full range of motion rapidly at speed, but over the past 45 years of my ‘hands on’ work in this field, I have seen dynamic stretches cause far more problems than they’ve ever solved in all age brackets, but most especially in the 45s and above. 

So I would very strongly advise the 45 plus age group to avoid dynamic stretching and only employ static stretching techniques.

Various recommendations advise that stretching activities should be performed at least twice weekly, but in realistically progressive truth, if you’re very stiff and have lost some joint motion, stretching activities should actually be done daily. The muscles most often tightly restricted are the hamstrings, spinal erectors, shoulder and chest muscles. Each of these can be stretched using different positions, and some general motions may stretch more than one muscle group, but with the 45s plus age group in particular, finding precisely the right stretches for a specific individual’s personal capability is a truly great progress and safety advantage, as compared to randomly choosing stretches and doing them.By no means are all hamstring, spinal erector, shoulder and chest stretches right for anybody and everybody to perform, as individual/hereditary factors play a prominent part in choosing the right stretches for the uniqueness of the individual.  So wherever you are in the UK, try to enlist the expertise of a realistically well qualified movement professional to analyse your Biomechanics and determine the stretches that are appropriate and safe for your body. 

Problems with tripping or falling often can indicate obvious difficulty with balance, but under normal circumstances for a static/unmoving balance, you should be able to stand unsupported on one leg for at least 20 seconds. Balance activities can be started with simple position shifts for those that already have balance issues. That shifting should take place in all directions, including angles, with different placements of the feet, as improving balance requires regular continuity of attention. You can achieve this by increasing the number of repetitions or the length of a balance activity, adding safely applied more demanding movement, or reduce input from other senses (sensory deprivation) such as by closing the eyes. In addition, the degree of support from the arms holding onto something can be reduced by first using both hands, then only one hand, then one finger, and finally to no assistance at all and such development structures can be performed two days a week.Again, guidance from someone specifically trained in Exercise Biomechanics and Human Movement is your best guide for finding your safest and most progressive way forward, so wherever you are in the UK, try to find a professional of this nature. However do bear very carefully in mind, that personal trainer courses do not provide training which is even remotely near the depth and scope of  expertise required for guiding someone in these endeavours. 

Other activities can also be used for flexibility and balance development. Tai Chi is effective for balance because it uses multiple types of weight shifting as well as standing on one leg for short periods of time. Yoga also has advantages via different body positions and more sustained holds, thus helping static balance and flexibility.However do be aware here,  that over time it’s possible for Yoga to actually cause joint articulation issues, if it is not simultaneously combined with strength training, and that condition is clinically referred to as ‘capsular laxity’ if you want to look it up. The key to any stretching or balance program success is it being right for your personally individual joint and muscle structure; performing it regularly with careful control, and NEVER taking anything to the point of pain or significantly high levels of discomfort.

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