A few years ago I was picking up something off the floor when one of my daughters said, “Dad, why do you make that old man noise?” I asked her what she meant. “Well, every time you bend over, you make a sound like an old man.”
“That’s ridiculous. I do not.” And I bent over just to prove it. It took a little effort, but I didn’t make even a squeak.
Sometime later I bent over again, and she said, “See, there it is.” That really bothered me, so I started to pay attention, and she was right; I grunted when I bent over. When it started I have no idea, but putting on my shoes and socks or pulling a weed all got a grunt. What’s next—the old man shuffle?
Let me share with you what I’ve noticed as I am approaching the “downside” of this hill of life. As we advance in age, we don’t lose strength very rapidly, but we lose flexibility at a dramatic rate. So muscles and joints get tighter, bending to put on shoes and socks gets tougher, and the strain of it all makes funny noises come out of you. Consider yourself warned.
Do we really have to wave the white flag and surrender to age, gravity, and injury? As the average person ages, they become more sedentary, and over time the muscles, ligaments, and tendons contract, shorten, and turn more fibrous, thereby leading to decreased range of motion and a slow, downward spiral of function. Overuse, abuse, and injury just fast track that process. As evidence, I challenge you to pay attention to TV and magazine advertisements for the anti-inflammatories, pain killers, and muscle relaxants that are marketed to hide these complaints. I understand why they sell, but, to me, these products are like slapping a piece of tape over the oil warning light in your car while you keep on driving. Nothing is fixed, but you hide the indication until something actually breaks down.
What’s the answer for this loss of flexibility? Not to be over-simplistic, but the answer to a lack of fitness is to get fit, and the answer to a loss of flexibility is to get flexible. How is it done? I’m going to say the dirty word right now. Stretching. I know that most people would rather get a root canal, scrub a public toilet, or wash windows on the top of the Empire State Building than stretch. But stretching has a number of beneficial effects and can be so worth the effort and the discomfort.
Benefits include improved circulation, increased flexibility, increased range of motion, decreased tension, increased relaxation, stress relief, and enhanced performance, function, and coordination.
There are a number of different techniques when stretching, but I’m going to categorize them into the two major groups of ballistic and static. And here is where there is so much controversy, but since I’m in charge right now I get to push my conclusions which are based on my personal experience and observations.
Before a workout or event I prefer the ballistic approach. Done properly it is 70% warm-up and 30% stretch. It involves exercises like jumping jacks, burpees, windmills, and sit-ups. These warm the muscles, increase blood flow, and notify the body to get ready for the main event. They should employ motion and even a mild bounce, but never stretch beyond the normal range of motion. Pain or any risk of injury means you are going way too far. I find that stretching a cold muscle is never a wise idea either, so these warm-ups are crucial. Five to ten minutes using all the major muscle groups should be sufficient.
After the game, event, or work-out, static stretching will keep tightness and discomfort from setting in. With static stretches, the body part is stretched and held at the point of tension, but short of any discomfort, for 20–30 seconds. This largely bypasses the stretch reflex, so the muscle can relax and lengthen. Static stretches can be performed anytime, anywhere multiple times a week post-exercise for this relaxing, lengthening effect.
The goal of stretching is to transition from inactivity to activity and then back to inactivity, to decrease muscle tension, promote freer motion, and avoid injury. The best book on this subject that I have found is “Stretching” authored by Bob Anderson. Since I have been employing his approach, my senior citizen grunt has disappeared, and it should hold off my old man shuffle indefinitely.