Flexibility and Aging

Let’s continue the theme of physical wellness and aging…

I am a teacher who teaches 6hrs straight a day, some tap, mostly jazz.  I stretch with one of my classes throughout the day. I am finding when I have my next class my hamstrings are even tighter. Any suggestions on why I feel I am losing my flexibility which was great 2 yrs ago. I am a male and 36 yrs of age. Thanks in advance for your help!  Rocco

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Great question – and – I will admit that your question hit a small nerve for me, as I don’t like some of the changes I see in my own flexibility. I had been chalking up the changes to not spending the same amount of time stretching now that I am teaching over performing, so I decided to look at the research.

This is what I found.

“Even elderly men and women over seventy years old can increase their flexibility (Brown et al. 2000; Lazowski et al. 1999). With strength training the elderly, even in their 90s, can increase their strength and muscle mass-not as fast and as much as young people, but they can (Fiatarone et al. 1990; Lexell et al. 1995)” Thomas Kurz, author of “Stretching Scientifically”.

YES! I found other research that supported the statement that aging and decreasing flexibility or strength do not necessarily go hand in hand. But let’s get real, okay? That is not the experience that most people have as they age. Why not?

The study of physiology and aging also states that as we age, our muscles and joints tend to get tighter, and that is because as we age connective muscle tissue shortens. This shortening of connective tissue can influence the range of motion we have at a joint, especially if muscle balance isn’t maintained.

Rocco’s question about his hamstrings could be a perfect example of this.  Rocco, I would have you look at your lower back muscles, the iliopsoas, and the erector spinae muscles and work to loosen them up by doing the psoas lunge (runner’s lunge) and the more normal rounding forward stretches we do for our spine. Often when the lower back muscles are tight, we will feel the strain in our hamstrings, and when the hamstrings are tight, that stress will be felt in our lower back. When one muscle group gets tight, the other muscle groups will try and compensate. The same pattern happens with strength. If one muscle is weaker, another muscle will try and take over some of the work – often setting up a possibility for strain or tendonitis, etc. in the compensatory muscle.

We are very aware of muscle balance and alignment as dancers, and when we are still taking class for ourselves we continue to work on maintaining good muscular balance. Teaching, however, as our main form of exercise, does not do the same good things for our bodies, simply because we are so focused on our students as we are moving. It’s been my experience that even if I am stretching with a class I am still observing students, talking and counting as I am stretching, yes – I’m aware of what is happening in my own body – but not truly in dialogue with it.

There are lifestyle changes that happen after the age of 30 that influence our flexibility and strength. We begin to have more responsibilities, less time to focus on our own health and well-being. Certainly, this has been a juggling act that many people – not just dancers – are faced with.

So – the good news is our bodies are adaptable and can improve its flexibility and strength even after a long period away from dancing (or having children, or whatever our reasons are).  The bad news is that it will take making it a priority and stretching and strengthening, not twice a week, or three times a week – but small amounts daily, or as close to that as possible.

It’s not useful to beat up on ourselves for not having the body we used to have when we were in our 20’s. And, we can take comfort in the knowledge that when we begin taking time out to stretch daily, we WILL see the results of our efforts.  Jane Fonda was right on when she said if you don’t use it you’ll lose it!

I’ll close with a quote from Dr. Michael Kaplan, director of the Rehabilitation Team, a sports medicine and physical therapy clinic in Maryland who says, “There’s no reason why people in their thirties and forties and even older can’t have just as much flexibility as when they were younger–or even more flexibility. A 60-year-old can have more flexibility than a 20-year-old, if she works at it and stretches.”

As dance teachers you all have many stretches that you have learned over the years to better your flexibility.  If you haven’t already, you might be interested in checking out my Effective Stretching dvd.  These stretches were designed to stretch muscles and fascia, sitting in your chair, easily and effortlessly.  They are simple to do – and – as the title suggests – very effective at creating change.  The dvd came out after I worked with my musicians and dancers over a couple semesters creating stretches they could do while they were studying or as a preparation for practicing.  Many students had more significant responses in their flexibility and function with these stretches over doing the typical passive, hang out and stretch ones they had been doing for a while.  Plus – if you order any product before the end of the month you’ll get a free Tune Up Your Turnout book!

Happy dancing!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

14 replies
  1. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Hi Deborah:

    I’ve been dancing for twenty-three years, mainly ballet and modern, and haven’t really had any serious injuries. Recently though, with the introduction of capoeira and Bikram yoga into my life, I’ve noticed that I experience quite a bit of discomfort when doing forward flexion, particularly in my hip joints and what seem to be my hip flexors.

    To be more specific, I am unable and its uncomfortable to bring my knees to my chest (to my knowledge I’ve never been able to do this, even as a child), and child’s pose is equally if not more uncomfortable. I brought this up to my doctor at a recent visit and she remarked that this decreased range of motion was abnormal, and has given me a requisition for an x-ray of my hip area. (I should note that I’m also quite flexible in terms of muscles: splits, arabesques, and ponches are no problem–but I’m not able to get my stomach onto the tops of my thighs when I sit of the ground, bend forward, and grab my toes.)

    I’m not in any pain in my hip joints or in my hip flexors, moderate to great “discomfort” is really the best word to describe it, but the lack of flexibility has always hindered the height of my front develope and makes it difficulty to do some poses in yoga, as well as a whole bunch of moves in capoeira.

    I’m wondering what your take is on all of this. Do I have a hip problem? Is it a hip flexor problem? Are there moves/poses that I shouldn’t be doing? Are there stretches that I can do to increase flexibility?

    Thank you in advance for any help that you might be able to provide. Sincerely,

    -Jessica

    Reply
  2. Mati
    Mati says:

    Deborah – I’ve really enjoyed your posts and shared them with many dance friends. Have to credit and thank Nichelle from DanceAdvantage.net for introducing me to your blog. I hope to share this article with students at Elbaz Dance.com. We have a large percentage of older students not professional, but the question of flexibility comes up often in discussion. I know they’ll enjoy your insight.

    Reply
  3. deborah
    deborah says:

    Jessica,
    I wonder whether your pelvis is tipped forward some. Do you tend towards a swayback? I don’t immediately think of a hip problem, but more of a structural restriction. It could be that the way the head of the thigh bone fits into the socket of the pelvis is restricting that motion. You’ll have more information to work with after your x-ray – and then you can go from there.

    In the meantime, I would encourage you to make sure there is no tightness in the iliopsoas that could be tipping the alignment of the pelvis forward.

    Reply
  4. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Hi Deborah:

    Thank you very much for your response.

    To answer your question: yes, I do tend towards a sway back. My lower back has always seemed to be very flexible.

    What do you recommend is the best stretch for my iliosoas given my tipped pelvis?

    -Jessica

    Reply
    • deborah
      deborah says:

      any form of lunge stretching would work. You’ll want to also make sure that you have good balance between abdominal strength and lower back flexibility.

      Reply
  5. Gayle
    Gayle says:

    I am perplexed. I left a comment on the topic of Flexibility and Aging a few days ago, a story that I thought would be encouraging to other adults, but find that it has not passed the moderation stage. What was inappropriate about it? Other people have posted their personal experiences.

    (it was the story about achieving the splits for the first time in my 40s)

    Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Steve
    Steve says:

    Hi Deborah:

    Thank you very much for your response.

    To answer your question: yes, I do tend towards a sway back. My lower back has always seemed to be very flexible.

    What do you recommend is the best stretch for my iliosoas given my tipped pelvis?

    -Jessica

    Reply
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