Flexibility post 40

It's not such a far-stretched idea

Man exercising

As a chiropractor, I study the health of our joints. When a patient visits, I look for the level of ‘springiness’ of the joints, especially along the spine. Often, I am able to detect the first signs of a back or neck problem. The reason: poor posture and a sedentary lifestyle. If you are stuck in a routine of driving to office, working at your desk, driving back home, you need to sit up and make changes in your lifestyle. Like most doctors say, there is good news and bad news. Let’s start with the latter.

Your body will never be able to produce elastin in the same quantities it did before you were born. But the good news is that you can retain and maintain the flexibility in your joints — and 40 years is not too late!

Here are some steps you can take:

[Please note: If you have a medical condition or are in pain, check with a doctor before starting any new form of exercise.]

Exercise regularly

For those who are inactive, simple forms of regular exercise like walking, swimming or even playing golf will improve one’s flexibility.

However, you will find that there will still be certain muscles and joints that will tend to stay tight or even tighten if the form of exercise is not varied enough, or is excessive. If you are going to take up a new sport or active hobby, it’s important that you know something about warming up properly and stretching.

Stretch daily

Aim to stretch every day. Yoga and Pilates can be effective ways of improving flexibility. It is important to establish a routine that you are comfortable with and are prepared to do on a regular basis. I encourage most people over the age of 40 to complete a simple three-minute daily exercise programme that promotes balance, strength and flexibility in the spine. You can find it online; it’s called ‘Straighten Up UK’ and was designed by the British Chiropractic association to help reduce problems resulting from poor spinal health in an ageing population. Just remember to do it at a set time during the day so it becomes routine.

If you are going to do your own set of stretches, try to follow these general tips:

  • Never stretch when you’re cold! Warm up cold muscles with a hot shower and a gentle jog. Stretching a cold muscle may lead to injury if followed by vigorous exercise.
  • Avoid bouncing while stretching, this causes the muscle to contract during the stretch and can damage it.
  • Don’t aim for pain; you should only feel mild discomfort, which often eases during the duration of the stretch.
  • Hold the position for 20 – 40 seconds.
  • Stretch opposing muscle groups. For example, after stretching the front of your thighs you should then stretch your hamstrings.
  • Breathe normally; this promotes relaxation.
  • Avoid boredom by learning new stretches or going to a yoga class.

Get adjusted

Adjustment is the term given to the technique used to restore mobility in a restricted joint. It is most commonly performed on the joints in the spine. It should only be performed by a qualified person, usually a chiropractor or an osteopath although physiotherapists and doctors may also perform it if they are trained in spinal manipulative therapy [SMT]. Most people who get adjusted do so because they have already developed pain due to restricted mobility. But it’s possible to identify such areas and restore mobility before pain develops. The technique involves briefly taking the joint beyond the reduced range that it has been operating in. This may cause the joint to cavitate or ‘click’ but does not do any damage to the joint and rapidly restores joint mobility.

Why we lose it

When we are young our tissues are full of a protein called elastin which, as you may have guessed, has the properties of an elastic band. There is also fibrin which does not stretch and has the properties of a steel cable: very high tensile strength. The relative proportions of elastin and fibrin vary in different types of tissue depending on its function. The tendons in the back of your hand, for example, are high in fibrin, allowing them to act as pulleys lifting your fingers efficiently. Whereas your Achilles tendon contains more elastin, allowing you to spring off your feet when you run.

Elastin is required in large quantities while the body is growing but from a young age we begin to produce less and less. When tissue is damaged severely or repetitively, the tissue that replaces it tends to be have more fibrin with a lower elastin content [think of scar tissue]. Elastin is the longest lasting protein in the body with a half life of 74 years; but by the time we reach middle age, production is minimal and we rely on the persistence of elastin that was laid down in the first few years of life. As it runs out, our skin becomes wrinkly and our joints become stiff, our blood vessels harden and our blood pressure rises.

It is all about being active. The tissues that make up joints have little or no blood supply. Movement nourishes joints by bathing the surfaces in the lubricating synovial fluid. Without it, the joint function deteriorates fairly rapidly and becomes painful.

But, in your enthusiasm, remember it is also about attaining the right balance between overloading your joints and under-using them.

Too little movement may be the result of swelling around a joint from acute trauma such as a sprain, or possibly conditions such as osteoarthritis. Too much movement indicates joint instability and is commonly seen when a ligament has been torn but may also be present from birth in people with naturally hyper-mobile joints that are prone to dislocate. A healthy joint should be able to move smoothly and painlessly through, but not beyond, it’s full range of motion.

Good flexibility is not just beneficial for our joints; optimising the function of our musculoskeletal system is hugely valuable to our health as a whole. Long term pain is closely linked with depression. If we are able to move well without pain, we not only feel happy, we are also better able to deal with stress, a major risk factor in many diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular conditions.

A version of this was first published in the August 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Will Thompson
Will Thompson, DC, M[Chiro], LCC, is based at The Orthpaedic & Sports Medicine Centre at Chowgule College of Arts and Science, where he works for Walking Tall Chiropractic Clinic in Goa. He trained in the UK where he worked in private practice and for the National Health Service as well as consulting with Bristol City football Club and other sports teams.


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