Why should older adults perform flexibility training?
Performing flexibility training improves range of motion for activities of daily living and may protect against pain or injury. Flexibility or joint range of motion is an important component of fitness, particularly at advanced ages when declines in joint flexibility are often associated with declines in physical health and functional status (Shepard et al., 1990; Gehlsen & Whaley, 1990). After men achieve their peak range of motion in their mid-twenties and women in their late twenties, flexibility declines significantly with age in both sexes (Smith & Walker, 1983; Bohan et al., 1999).
Range of motion depends on the bone, muscle, and connective tissue within the joint. Aging affects these structures so that range of motion is typically reduced. In addition to structural changes, pain is sometimes encountered when moving the joints and this inhibits further joint movement. Reductions in joint flexibility can then make performing physical tasks more difficult. For example, if shoulder flexibility is reduced, then reaching for objects or combing hair becomes more challenging. In addition, walking, navigating stairs, and rising from a chair may become increasingly difficult as flexibility declines. Older adults with low levels of flexibility may also put themselves at risk for falls when performing such activities (Pate & Macera, 1994).
Current evidence suggests that participation in a regular stretching program can improve flexibility, reduce joint pain, and enhance muscle performance. However, little research has been performed to develop programs that specifically target range of motion in older adults. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that older adults participate in exercises that have been shown to increase range of motion (ACSM, 1998). These exercises include walking, aerobic dance, and stretching. Many studies report improvements of range of motion of the neck, shoulder, wrist, hip, knee, and ankle joints with such programs.