Regular stretching improves muscles for elderly

Daily muscle stretching could bring health benefits to elderly people with reduced mobility, according to new research published this week in the Journal of Physiology.

Despite the well-known beneficial effects of exercise, the proportion of elderly people participating in regular exercise programs is low, often due to the strenuous nature of exercise training. In particular, elderly people with reduced mobility and weak muscles are often less likely to take part in exercise.

Muscle stretching is wide­ly performed as a warm-up or cool-down and is low intensity compared to aerobic exercise. This means that even very old individuals can perform muscle stretching with minimal risk of injury.

Researchers from Kansas State University, Florida State University, and the University of Electro-communications in Tokyo found that regular muscular stretch­ing, when performed five times per week, for four weeks, increases blood flow to muscles of the lower leg.

They also found that regular muscular stretching improves the function of arteries in the muscles of the lower legs, and increases the number of capillaries within stretched muscles.

This suggests that for individuals with limited mobility, regular muscular stretching could improve blood flow to muscles.

This has particularly important implications for elderly people with lower leg problems for whom walking is difficult due to pain or lack of mobility. Additionally, patients with peripheral artery disease and patients with foot or leg problems related to conditions such as diabetes might be able to use mus­cular stretching to improve blood flow to their lower limbs and increase or regain walking function.

The team carried out the research by placing splints on the lower limb of aged rats so that the calf muscles were stretched while the splint was in place. Splints were placed on one leg for thirty minutes, five days per week, for four weeks. They compared blood flow, arterial function, and the number of capillaries in the muscles of the stretched lower limb to the unstretched, contralateral limb.

Lead researcher on the study, Dr. Judy Muller-Delp, Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the Florida State University College of Medicine, said: “The benefits of exercise are well known, but elderly people with limited mobility are often less likely to take part. Our research suggests that static muscle stretching performed regularly can have a real impact by increasing blood flow to muscles in the lower leg.

This highlights that even individuals who struggle to walk due to pain or lack of mobility can undertake activity to possibly improve their health.

“We did not test a range of stretching or a different timeframe for the stretching intervention. It is possible that greater stretch or stretch that increases steadily over the four week period would have an even greater benefit. It is also possible that greater benefit would be seen if the stretching continued for longer than 4 weeks.”

Stretches to do, avoid

Q. Dear Mayo Clinic: I recently started jogging for exercise. I have been stretching before each run, but I’ve heard that some stretches increase your risk of injury. Which stretches should I do, and which should I avoid?

A: Stretching is an important part of your exercise routine, as it increases your flexibility and improves your joints’ range of motion. Typically, the best time to stretch is after a workout when your muscles are warm and more receptive to stretching. Performing a variety of basic stretches that focus on major muscle groups generally is recommended to protect you from exercise-related injuries.

One of the significant benefits you get from stretching is ensuring that you have optimal range of motion around your joints. Full range of motion around your joints enables your muscles to work most effectively. Stretching also helps establish and maintain equal flexibility on both sides of your body. If a muscle on one side of your body is tighter than the same muscle on the other side, your risk for injury can increase due to the imbalance.

Getting into the habit of stretching your major muscle groups after each workout can be a good way to begin a routine of stretching. For runners, it’s a good idea to regularly stretch your calf muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors and iliotibial bands (also known as the ITB).

Your calf muscle runs along the back of your lower leg. The quadriceps muscle runs along the front of your thigh, and the hamstring is on the back of your thigh. Hip flexors, which enable you to lift your knees and flex at the waist, are on your upper thighs – just below your hip bones. Your ITB is a band of tissue that runs along the outside of your hip, thigh and knee.

In addition to stretching those muscles, a knee-to-chest stretch that stretches the muscles of the lower back also can be useful. Find detailed instructions for stretching each of these muscle groups by searching for “Slideshow: A guide to basic stretches” on Mayo Clinic’s website, mayoclinic.org.

Research has suggested that doing these types of stretches, known as static stretches, just before activities that involve running or jumping can cause a small decrease in athletic performance. Instead, warm up with an aerobic activity, such as jogging or cycling, for five to 10 minutes before you stretch. Or, better yet, wait until after you are done with your aerobic workout, and then go through a series of stretches. If you don’t exercise regularly, you may want to stretch a few times a week after a brief warmup to maintain your flexibility.

As you stretch, hold your stretches steady, and don’t bounce. Bouncing can cause injury to your muscles. Don’t hold your breath. Instead, breathe regularly and easily through your stretches. You shouldn’t feel pain as you stretch – only light pulling. To gain the most benefit from stretching, hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds.