Be strong and mobile!
You probably understand the importance of maintaining flexibility as you age. More importantly however, is maintaining good mobility. What’s the difference between flexibility and mobility? Flexibility refers to the ability of your muscles to stretch. An example would be doing a hamstring stretch and holding it for a period of time. Mobility is the ability to actively move a joint through its intended range of motion. An example would be doing a full squat which requires you to have good ankle, knee, and hip mobility. You need good flexibility to have good joint mobility, but being flexible doesn’t necessarily mean you have good mobility. Other factors such as joint stiffness, muscle strength, and history of injury will affect your mobility. Just stretching isn’t enough as you age. You need to also maintain your joint mobility and strength throughout your range of motion.
If you’re like me, you probably have a limited time for exercise and want to do the things you enjoy the most. For many of us, mobility training isn’t at the top of that list. The good news is 5-10 minutes most days of the week will help you maintain your mobility. That’s a small price to pay for improved performance and reduced injury risk as you age. If you have a limited amount of time to devote to mobility training, which exercises should you do?
Start with the mid back or what is called the thoracic spine. Too much sitting, weakness, and poor body awareness all contribute to a slouched posture. It is completely safe and OK to slouch periodically. However, if you don’t counteract the forward bent position with movement in the other direction your joints and muscles will stiffen up. You may have noticed as you age, it is a little bit harder to stand up nice and tall. Stiffness in your mid back also contributes to many other common injuries including low back pain, neck pain, and shoulder pain. The shoulder sweep shown below is a great place to start for maintaining your mid back mobility.
Next, let’s consider your hips, knees, and ankles. As we age it is commonly more difficult to get up out of a chair, off the ground, or perform any number of activities that require us to squat. By the way, if you have difficulty getting up off the floor check out this article. It is important to be strong to do these activities, but it is also important to have good mobility. If you have kids or grandkids, look how easily they can fully squat. They have great mobility in their hips, knees, and ankles allowing them to deeply squat and get up effortlessly. Why do so many people lose their ability to deeply squat as they get older? One of the main reasons is they stop squatting. Use it or lose it! Your joints and muscles will get stiffer and you won’t be able to squat as deeply if you don’t work on maintaining this movement as you age. Some may also think squatting deeply will cause damage to their hips or knees. Therefore, we shouldn’t squat deeply as we age. It is important to remember that every tissue (muscle, ligament, tendon, cartilage, bone) is constantly remodelling itself. Tissue remodels stronger when we stress it. So yes, deep squatting puts more stress on your knees. However, your knees will get stronger because of this stress. Obviously, applying too much stress can cause pain and in some cases damage. However, too little stress will cause your joints to get weaker. Slowly progressing the amount of stress you apply to your body will give it time to adapt and remodel stronger. This will help keep you injury free as you age. Depending on how well you can squat now, you may need to slowly work into the squatting exercise shown below. A little bit of discomfort is OK, but it shouldn’t cause pain. If you are new to squatting or have a history of knee pain start with 1 set of 5-10 partial squats and slowly increase the depth and number of sets and repetitions.
Finally, you need to maintain flexibility in the muscles around your hip. Flexibility in your hip muscles not only allows your hip to move better and will help prevent hip pain as you age. It also affects how your back, knees, and ankles move. Prolonged sitting also causes the muscles in the front of your hip (hip flexors) to tighten over time. The two hip flexibility exercises shown below should be held for 2 minutes while taking slow, deep breaths.
If you don’t already have a mobility routine I encourage you to start. Stiffness is something that gradually creeps up on you as the years progress. Many people don’t realize they have gotten stiffer until they have pain. It is much easier to maintain mobility than it is to improve it.
Check in with your physical therapist for more specific guidance on how you should improve your mobility. Your therapist can figure out what areas you should focus on the most and guide you on progressing appropriately to avoid injury.