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Stretching and Flexibility in the Aging Adult

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published online 9 April 2009Home Health Care Management Practice
Harvey W. Wallmann
Stretching and Flexibility in the Aging Adult
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Stretching and Flexibility in the Aging Adult
Harvey W. Wallmann, PT, DSc, SCS, LAT, ATC, CSCS
Keywords: flexibility; stretching; alignment; range of motion; aging; movement
Stretching to improve flexibility has long been recog-
nized as an important component of a total fitness
program for generating and maintaining overall flexibil-
ity as well as for sporting events and activities of daily
living (ADLs). Many health care professionals would
agree that stretching is especially important after sustain-
ing an injury, because this may result in compromised
range of motion (ROM) and flexibility due to impaired
mobility. Immobility may lead to shortened muscles,
which may lead to muscular imbalance about a joint,
which, in turn, could lead to faulty postural alignment
that may further lead to injury and joint dysfunction.
Consequently, understanding and incorporating stretch-
ing exercises to restore normal ROM and flexibility is a
crucial component to any rehabilitation program.
What Is Stretching?
Stretching is simply the movement of the muscles and
tendons about a joint to a point of resistance within the
available ROM, at which point a force is applied, gener-
ally past its end range. A stretch is induced as the tissue
is subjected to a tensile (pulling) force, resulting in elon-
gation of the musculotendinous unit and, hence, transient
deformation. Of course, the amount of stretching that
takes place depends on the physiology of the muscles and
connective tissue (e.g., skin, fascia, ligaments, tendons,
joint capsules, and muscle fascia), where the mechanical
behavior is related to the overall property of viscoelastic-
ity (Lederman, 1997; Taylor, Dalton, Seaber, & Garrett,
1990). Viscoelasticity is a combination of the properties
of viscosity and elasticity (Lederman, 1997; Levangie &
Norkin, 2001). Viscosity refers to a material’s ability to
dampen and lubricate elements. Elasticity refers to a
material’s ability to return to its original state following
deformation (i.e., change in dimensions such as length or
shape) after the removal of the deforming load. It is the
springlike element within the tissue.
Stretching may be performed actively, where the indi-
vidual supplies the force for the stretch, or passively,
where a partner or outside entity provides the force for the
stretch. Stretching also affects different sensory receptors
in the muscle and tendon, resulting in important neuro-
physiological phenomena.
What Is Flexibility?
Flexibility has been defined as the ability to move
muscles and joints through a full ROM (Bandy & Sanders,
2001) and generally refers to the degree of normal
motion available. Flexibility is necessary for efficient
movement, as decreased joint mobility and ROM may
lead to incorrect body alignment, chronically tight mus-
cles, faulty compensation patterns, inefficient body
mechanics, and possibly increased risk of injury.
Flexibility can be classified into different categories.
Static flexibility refers to the ROM about a joint as a
result of static stretching (no velocity involved) or pas-
sive movement, whereas dynamic flexibility relates to
the ability to move through an ROM with normal or
rapid velocity using active movements (Alter, 1996;
Holcomb, 2000). However, no evidence substantiates
that flexibility exists as a single general characteristic of
the body. Rather, it is specific to particular joints, joint
actions, or movements (Merni, Balboni, Bargellini, &
Menegatti, 1981). For example, having good gastrocne-
mius flexibility does not mean the hamstrings will also
be flexible. Consequently, it is highly variable among
different individuals, resulting in different levels of
flexibility in various movements.
The flexibility needed for athletic endeavors usually
differs from that needed for ADLs. Just as flexibility is
joint specific, it is also activity or sport specific. Many
studies have identified a functional ROM for specific
joints, which occurs during the performance of certain
functional tasks (Ostrosky, Van Swearingen, Burdett, &
Gee, 1994). For example, depending on the height of the
step, approximately 105° of knee flexion is necessary to
ascend and descend stairs. Another example would be a
baseball pitcher exhibiting increased shoulder ROM with
external rotation and decreased internal rotation ROM in
the throwing arm as compared with the nonthrowing arm.
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Furthermore, a swimmer would require more bilateral
shoulder flexibility than would a sprinter.
Many people consider good flexibility essential for
successful athletic performance and injury prevention.
However, there is virtually no research to substantiate
the claim that increased flexibility can improve athletic
performance. Commonsense suggests that including
stretching activities in rehabilitation and fitness pro-
grams is a good idea. Flexibility is an important part of
any training program, because it dictates movement abil-
ity during sports activities. Decreased flexibility in a
hurdler, for example, could hinder performance. However,
with notable exceptions, maximal flexibility is not vital
in all sports because most sport skills (e.g., shooting a
basketball and playing golf) require an effective balance
between joint flexibility and stability and do not require
full ROM.
Flexibility is maintained through regular and proper
stretching regimens and will diminish over time if tissues
are not stretched or exercised (Alter, 1996). Therefore, a
loss of flexibility would result in a decreased ROM about
a joint secondary to a decreased ability of the muscle to
deform. It stands to reason, then, that the goal of any flex-
ibility program would be to improve ROM at all joints by
enhancing musculotendinous extensibility around those
joints.
Limitations to Flexibility
Factors and components other than muscles, tendons,
and their surrounding fascia may be responsible for lim-
iting flexibility and joint ROM. These limitations might
include bony structures, fat, connective tissue lesions,
skin, postural problems, age, or sex (Arnheim & Prentice,
1997) and would be determined as contributing to func-
tional movement limitations during the assessment.
Additionally, given joint specificity, the clinician must
identify the restriction responsible for causing the limita-
tion and then select the appropriate exercise technique to
improve flexibility.
Aging and Flexibility
Children appear to have increased flexibility during
their elementary school years with a leveling off during
adolescence and an eventual decline throughout adult-
hood (Corbin & Noble, 1980). The physiological changes
that occur with aging beyond adolescence can be respon-
sible for the decrease in overall musculoskeletal flexibil-
ity, especially in the elderly. The loss of muscle function,
along with the increase in intramuscular connective tissue
stiffness, results in decreased ROM and a gradual decline
in the efficiency of performance of ADLs. Certain physi-
cal and biochemical changes occur to collagen with aging
resulting in decreased extensibility. These changes include
an increased formation of intramolecular and intermo-
lecular cross-links, which restricts the ability of the
collagen fibers to move past each other.
Despite the fact that collagen is less mobile and
responds slower to stretching in the elderly than in their
younger counterparts, evidence reveals that decreases in
flexibility and ROM can be minimized in those elderly
who remain active in a flexibility training program. Given
some compensation for time, the older person is actually
capable of increasing flexibility (Lewis, 2002). In fact,
ROM increases have been observed in several joints as a
result of various exercise programs in an aging population
(Mills, 1994; Skelton, Greig, Davies, & Young, 1994).
Sex Differences
Women are generally more flexible than men (Alter,
1996). This may be because of physiological and anatomi-
cal differences. For example, pregnancy affects flexibility,
making the pelvic joints and ligaments relaxed and capable
of greater movement. A study examining the differences
between men and women over an 18-year period revealed
that men had less flexibility than women only in their ham-
string muscles (Barnekow-Bergkvist, Hedberg, Janlert, &
Jansson, 1996). Some of the differences in flexibility may
be because of the sex-specific nature of different regular
and social activities. Additionally, although no firm conclu-
sions can be drawn, hormonal fluctuations may play a role
in ligamentous laxity of certain joints, thus potentially pre-
disposing women to greater ROM differences than men.
Pathology and Joint Laxity
The goal of any flexibility program is to improve
the joint ROM by improving the muscle extensibility.
However, musculoskeletal extensibility may also be affected
by skeletal malalignment, thereby altering soft tissue
loading of the joints. Subsequently, compensatory pos-
tures may result in pathology, alongside abnormal joint
load distribution and contact pressures, which can lead to
articular cartilage degeneration.
Joint laxity may affect the way flexibility is assessed.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, some people
with increased joint laxity actually have poor musculo-
tendinous extensibility. Carter and Wilkinson (1964)
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Wallmann / Stretching and Flexibility 3
developed a hypermobility screening method, later modi-
fied by Beighton, Solomon, and Soskolne (1973), which
has been used extensively to examine specific joint flexi-
bility. This method examines the ability to perform the
following movements: (a) to hyperextend the knees and
elbows beyond 10°, (b) to passively extend the fingers so
that they are parallel to the forearm, (c) to passively abduct
the thumb so that it touches the forearm, and (d) to forward
flex the trunk so that the palms easily touch the floor. When
demonstrating a stretching program with hypermobile
individuals, it is necessary to first isolate the muscle to be
stretched and then focus on stretching the muscle only and
not the joint capsule. This produces a more effective
stretch than simply performing a stretch over two or three
joints (Bandy & Sanders, 2001).
Human movement is a carefully orchestrated process
that involves the driving force of the neuromuscular and
musculoskeletal systems. One factor affecting move-
ment is the ability of tissues responsible for both the
generation of motion of joints and limitation of exces-
sive motion that may potentially cause damage to tis-
sues. Therefore, it is critical to understand the basic
biomechanical and physiological properties of tissues
supporting human movement. Knowing these properties
allows the clinician to make decisions regarding thera-
peutic exercise programs impacting flexibility.
For many, the main goal of stretching is to enhance
overall flexibility. However, stretching has also been
shown to help facilitate relaxation, prevent injury, reduce
postexercise soreness, allow quicker recovery from work-
outs, and affect performance. Additionally, a flexible body
may have improved muscle balance and is often seen as
being more efficient and more easily able to undergo
strength and endurance training. Research is currently
ongoing in an attempt to challenge some of the long-held
beliefs about stretching, especially its influence on imme-
diate dynamic muscle performance.
References
Alter, M. J. (1996). Science of flexibility (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL:
Human Kinetics.
Arnheim, D. D., & Prentice, W. E. (1997). Principles of athletic
training. Madison, WI: Brown & Benchmark.
Bandy, W. D., & Sanders, B. (2001). Therapeutic exercise: Techniques
for intervention. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Barnekow-Bergkvist, M., Hedberg, G., Janlert, U., & Jansson, E.
(1996). Development of muscular endurance and strength from
adolescence to adulthood and level of physical capacity in men
and women at the age of 34 years. Scandinavian Journal of
Medicine and Science in Sports, 6, 145-155.
Beighton, P., Solomon, L., & Soskolne, C. L. (1973). Articular mobil-
ity in an African population. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases,
32, 413-418.
Carter, C. O., & Wilkinson, J. A. (1964). Genetic and environmental
factors in the etiology of congenital dislocation of the hip. Clinical
Orthopaedics and Related Research, 33, 119-128.
Corbin, C. B., & Noble, L. (1980). Flexibility: A major component of
physical fitness. Journal of Physical Education and Recreation,
51, 23-24.
Holcomb, W. (2000). Stretching and warm-up. In T. Baechle & R. Earle
(Eds.), Essentials of strength training and conditioning (2nd ed.,
pp. 321-342). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Lederman, E. (1997). Fundamentals of manual therapy: Physiology,
neurology, and psychology. New York: Churchill Livingstone.
Levangie, P. K., & Norkin, C. C. (2001). Joint structure and function:
A comprehensive analysis (3rd ed.). Philadelphia: F. A. Davis.
Lewis, C. B. (2002). Aging: The health-care challenge: An interdis-
ciplinary approach to assessment and rehabilitative management
of the elderly (4th ed.). Philadelphia: F. A. Davis.
Merni, F., Balboni, M., Bargellini, S., & Menegatti, G. (1981).
Differences in males and females in joint movement range during
growth. Medicine and Sport, 15, 168-175.
Mills, E. M. (1994). The effect of low-intensity aerobic exercise on
muscle strength, flexibility, and balance among sedentary elderly
persons. Nursing Research, 43, 207-211.
Ostrosky, K. M., Van Swearingen, J. M., Burdett, R. G., & Gee, Z.
(1994). A comparison of gait characteristics in young and old
subjects. Physical Therapy, 74, 637-644.
Skelton, D. A., Greig, C. A., Davies, J. M., & Young, A. (1994).
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65-89 years. Age and Ageing, 23, 371-377.
Taylor, D. C., Dalton, J. D., Seaber, A. V., & Garrett, W. E. (1990).
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Harvey W. Wallmann, PT, DSc, SCS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, is
an associate professor, chair of the Department of Physical
Therapy, and the founding director of the Physical Therapy
Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He also
served 1 year as the interim dean for the School of Health and
Human Sciences. He received a BA in movement and sports
science from Purdue University in 1985, an MS degree with an
emphasis in exercise physiology from Purdue University in
1986, an MS degree in physical therapy from the University of
Indianapolis in 1989, and a doctor of science degree from
Loma Linda University in 2000. He has advanced training and
skills in manual techniques of the spine and extremities, with
his primary work experience being in orthopedics and sports
physical therapy. In addition to being a certified athletic trainer
and a certified strength and conditioning specialist, he is also
a board certified clinical specialist in sports physical therapy
and serves as the chair of the sports specialty council under the
American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists. Areas of
interest include foot and ankle, foot orthotic fabrication, gait
training, the effects of stretching on performance, muscle
fatigue, sports nutrition, and balance assessment.
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... Although the aims of the present study did not include the assessment of possible aetiological mechanisms affecting joint ROM, according to scientific literature, flexibility improvements are mainly attributed to alterations in the extensibility of the connective tissue, as adequate/poor joint flexibility is considered to be dependent on the length and elasticity of the connective tissue surrounding individual muscle fibres and the muscle in total (Sapega et al. 1981, Warren et al. 1976, Alter 1996, Wallmann 2009). However, the positive impact of connective tissue on flexibility appears overestimated by researchers, whereas the effects myogenic constraints in determining ROM appear underestimated (Hutton 1992). ...
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