Maintaining Physical Flexibility

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How Motion and Regular Exercise Can Keep You Moving
By Linda Jones Haught

Perhaps you have wondered how your grand baby easily manages to get his or her toes in his mouth, and you can’t. A large part of this difference in flexibility has to do with the aging process. The molecular structure of a baby’s tendons and ligaments allow a wide range of movement. As a child grows into adulthood, the collagen strands in tendons and ligaments bind or cross-link to one another. By young adulthood this binding provides great strength while still allowing sufficient flexibility and elasticity.

But sometime during middle age this cross-linking of collagen goes too far, resulting in decreased flexibility, elasticity, and strength. Most people don’t notice these changes right away unless they are still into athletics or demanding physical activity. In the elderly or sedentary individual, it becomes apparent in the form of stiffness and lack of mobility as well as an increased likelihood of joint injuries.

Flexibility decreases by 20 to 30% between the ages of 20 and 70. The factors believed to contribute to the aging of our joints are genetic makeup, gene alterations throughout life, environment, hormones, and lifestyle. Although we have little control over the first two factors, we do have the ability to influence the last three.

Joints that are not put through their paces stiffen and bulk because connective tissues begin adhering to one another. However, many studies have demonstrated that exercise involving resistance, sustained stretching, and cardiovascular training will prevent many of these undesirable changes. Experts advise strength-training with free weights and other types of resistance because it reduces tendon deterioration and age-related muscle loss. They recommend regular sustained stretching because it helps to maintain elasticity. Cardiovascular or aerobic exercise is prescribed because it improves circulation and brings lubrication to the joints. All three types of exercise should be a part of your lifestyle.

Strength-training
A strength-training regimen should average three sessions a week for 20 to 30 minutes. It should work all muscle groups –the chest, shoulders, arms, back, abdomen, and legs. Begin with the legs, back and chest, and then work the arms and shoulders. The abdominal muscles are usually last but can go anywhere. Strength-training workouts should only be done every other day in order to allow muscle fibers to knit between sessions.

One to three sets of each exercise should be performed, with a set consisting of 8 to 12 repetitions. For upper body exercises that use dumbbells, begin with two to ten pounds depending on your starting capability. Increase the poundage once you can do two sets of 12 lifts with a particular weight. Over the months try progressing to eight- to twelve- pound dumbbells.

Stretching
Stretching exercises should not be performed on “cold” muscles due to the risk of pulling muscle fibers and tendons. Do your stretching after your cardiovascular workout when your body temperature is a degree or two higher than normal. Stretch at least the hamstrings (back of the thigh), the calves, the upper arms, the quadriceps (front of the thigh), and the shoulders.

Never engage in ballistic stretching where momentum or gravity is thrown against the joint in a jerky or forceful fashion. Instead, use static stretches that hold a position at the edge of your comfort zone for 20 to 30 seconds. A pulling sensation is good, but pain generally means you have overstretched.

Cardio respiratory or Aerobic Exercise
Your cardio respiratory workout should involve the repetitive use of the hip and thigh muscles such that the heart rate is elevated and breathing is heavy. Whatever aerobic activity you choose, you will want to take it easy for the first week or two just going through the motions conservatively and working out every other day. Build incrementally over the weeks to a more vigorous level of performance.

After you are more proficient in your activity, train yourself to sustain a rigorous tempo that challenges your heart and lung capacity. This will make your body more efficient at handling oxygen, allowing more oxygen to be delivered to the joints. Aerobic exercise can deliver benefits to every system of the body.

Arthritis
You can and should engage in all three types of activity even if you have arthritis. Although lifting weights in the midst of an acute inflammatory flare-up would not be advisable, individuals with arthritis or osteoporosis would profit greatly by strengthening the muscles surrounding joints. Stronger muscles place less strain on the joints and consequently reduce pain in time. One arthritis doctor commented that exercise may hurt an arthritic, but not exercising damages the joints, causing more pain in the long run.

Diet
In addition to a thoughtfully planned exercise program, it is also important to support bone density and strength with an adequate dietary intake of calcium and vitamin D. Tendons attach to bones, and many joint injuries in the elderly are caused by tendons pulling away from weak and porous bones.

Stress and Emotional Discomfort
When emotional discomfort persists or recurs frequently, the body releases powerful hormones. When there are no “small deals” left in life and you loose the ability to “calm down,” the body responds physiologically. Part of this response involves the vasoconstriction of blood vessels supplying the joints. The resulting lack of oxygen in the soft tissues produces tension, aching and finally chronic pain.

We are told that a sense of isolation and lack of control are the two primary causes of chronic stress overload. As a Christian you should seek involvement at church even when circumstances seem overwhelming, and you don’t feel like getting out. Research indicates that even when you force yourself to socialize, it reduces stress levels.

We also need to recognize that we have never had control over our lives. When things are going well, we fool ourselves into thinking we do have control. Because of this presumption, we assume that we have lost control when we encounter hard times. God has always been in control, and he always will be.

Spend much time talking to the Lord and “crying aloud” whenever you are alone. Ask Him for grace to trust him and to comprehend his great love for you.

Note: Check with your doctor before engaging in any exercise program.

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