STRENGTH, FLEXIBILITY AND BALANCE

As we get older, the physical changes that occur naturally in our bodies can keep us from doing the things that we love.  Strength and endurance training, balance and flexibility exercises are vital to health, quality of living and longevity as we age.  Here are some reasons why the body changes and ways we can combat those changes. 

Three things that naturally change in the body with age and how to prevent them!

  • FLEXIBILITY:  Is it difficult to turn your head when backing out of a parking spot?  Do you notice that it is getting harder to bend down to tie your shoes?  In my clinical practice, I often here patients communicate their loss of flexibility and say things like “oh, I’m just getting older”! What is important to understand is that, yes, flexibility will decrease with age, BUT, it is something we can work on and maintain.  A few things that contribute to the loss of flexibility include genetic predisposition, loss of elasticity in the soft tissue, gender, and body type but the most important factor related to flexibility boils down to use of joints or exercise itself.  Joints were meant to be used in a full-range of motion. Use it or lose it.

    Stretching improves circulation to our arms and legs, muscle control, increases sports performance and escalates your balance and coordination.  Yep, you heard that right, stretching.  Stretch those muscles every day!  Shoulders, knees, spine and ankles are a few joints to focus on, as they are involved in many movements of the body.  If you are someone that does better in a class atmosphere, find a gentle yoga class, tai chi or pilates to name a few, as these will get you moving and under the care of an instructor who can make sure you are doing the moves safely.  Not only is flexibility important to maintain healthy joints and avoid injury but new research is showing a correlation with trunk flexibility and arterial stiffness, which is a risk indicator to higher mortality rates.   Move it or lose it!

  • BALANCE:  All of us have taken a tumble or two at some point in our lives, but as we grow older the risks associated with falling become greater. About one third of the older population reports problems with balance and that number drastically increases after the age of 75.  We lose physical strength and bone density, our balance deteriorates, and we take longer to recover from a fall.  There are small changes that happen slowly in the aging body that directly relate to balance. The wavelike hairs in your inner ear lose sensitivity, vision changes as well as the nerve cells are less sensitive and reaction times slow down.  With the varied terrain and weather conditions of this area, it seems that balance is important for survival!  Even if you feel your balance has already been affected, it is never too late to work on it and improve.  One of my favorite exercises to work on balance is a simple one-legged stance. You can start with using a chair for balance, but as you improve work on core strength, good posture and length of time spent on each side balancing.  I also love any balance work done on a Bosu ball (the blue half round ball). Even just standing on the Bosu works on integration of the sensory system and strengthens important muscles needed for balance.  Once again, use it or lose it!

  • STRENGTH:  Another reality, unfortunately, is that we lose strength and mass in our muscles with age if we don’t challenge them on a regular basis through some sort of resistance training.  Muscle mass will naturally decrease 3-8% per decade after the age of 30 and accelerates in the late 50’s and 60’s.  Muscles are made up of two different types of fibers, fast-twitch and slow-twitch.  Fast twitch fibers are the ones that are more for power and are affected more by age and can tend to diminish.  Basic strength training with weights, resistance bands or body weight activities can help to work on maintaining and building the fast twitch fibers. Strength is not only related to muscle size and types of fibers but also how well the muscles fire and respond.  There is a reduction in the synchronicity of muscle firing as the body gets older.   The communication between the brain and muscles becomes less efficient and therefore more difficult to perform activities when needed.  Again, the good news is that strength training can improve these communication pathways and maximize muscle firing.

Changes in tendon structure effect both strength and flexibility.  You need healthy tendons, as they transmit force from muscle to bone.  The change that is most commonly seen with age is that tendons lose their water and collagen content, become dehydrated and more brittle, therefore more prone to injuries including sprains and tears.  Compromised tendons are also not flexible or strong and can lead to overall joint dysfunction.  Once again, a stretching and strengthening program can help to maintain tendon and soft tissue integrity!  Drinking plenty of water, a well-balanced diet and a few key supplements can also improve soft tissue health.  Nutrients that can help combat muscle loss and maintain soft tissue integrity include:  Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, protein, creatine and collagen.

The bottom line is use it or lose it when it comes to strength, balance and flexibility.  Basic strength exercises, resistance training, stretching and balance work can go a long way in promoting healthy aging and contribute to overall quality of life and longevity.  We don’t have to re-invent the wheel and it doesn’t have to be the newest trend in exercise fads.  The key is consistency and following a program and routine that you can stick to!

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