As we age, gravity slowly pushes down on us. It puts pressure on every joint and vertebrae of our spines. How we move in relation to gravity can further compress us, accelerating the way that we age. The natural thought is to create space in the body, so it wouldn’t be unexpected to turn to methods of stretching to find this space and combat gravity. However, while the concept seems like the perfect solution, the practice itself is very flawed. In fact, stretching can worsen compressions in your body and accelerate aging. In this article, we will explore the correlations between stretching and aging, the variables that are considered when assessing how someone is aging, and why stretching may not be the answer to aging. We will also address stretching and its effects on aging while tying everything back to Functional Patterns (FP) and practical tips to add into your practice.
Stretching and Aging - The Connection
Stretching is often considered a vital component of any fitness practice, with many people believing that it can help them maintain their youthfulness. Stiffness and rigidness in our physical structures is usually associated with age. You can typically tell how old someone is just by observing their structure and how they move. If your structure appears more ‘stuck’ or compressed and moves in a rigid fashion, it can be associated with being older. If you move with fluidity and finesse, your structure will appear more youthful when climbing stairs with ease and effortlessly sprinting to your bus that’s about to leave the station. Other features of a youthful appearance besides movement is having plump and hydrated muscle development.
Habitually stretching will actually amplify the aging process. This is because stretching out of habit isn’t followed by contraction of the muscles. Habitual stretching could be a morning routine of reaching your arms to your toes and holding it for as long as you can. Other examples are bringing your knees to your chest and rotating your hips back and forth. Perhaps you picked this habit up because of lumbar pain or feeling back stiffness. But now its become a part of your movement ritual and you’re finding yourself stretching throughout the day, maybe even when you don’t really need to
Habitual stretching could also be a warm-up that you practice before playing soccer with your friends, going on a hike, or even doing something physical at home such as yard work. You might have found it makes you feel light and limber before exerting yourself, but you find you don’t perform as well in your sport or physical activity without it. Now you’re dependent on it as a way to ‘feel’ as you once did when you were younger.
During functional movements, such as sprinting, all muscles should be activated at some point if sprinting is done correctly. Therefore, conventional full body stretches may not be as beneficial as people believe when it comes to maintaining youthful movement and function. This is because full body stretching doesn’t mimic or relate to what the body is actually doing when sprinting, or moving very well.
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For instance, one study found that there was no significant impact after a 6-month follow-up of stretching on quality of life or pain in people with non-neurological conditions.1 Another study indicated that stretching might not be effective at reducing overall injury incidence, with more evidence needed to determine if stretching programs alone can reduce muscular injuries.2 Furthermore, the Mayo Clinic notes that some research shows stretching does not reduce muscle soreness after exercise, and lengthening the muscle and holding the stretch immediately before a sprint may slightly decrease performance.3
The outcomes of stretching exercises depend on factors such as the type of stretching, duration, frequency, and the population being studied. Some studies report benefits such as improved flexibility, muscle balance, posture, and reduced injury risk, while others suggest that stretching may not significantly reduce muscle soreness or improve strength.
The general consensus among most peer-reviewed studies on the effects of stretching is varied and inconclusive in the long-term, meaning 3-5 years or more. There is a need for further high-quality research and consensus on stretching methodologies to better understand the effectiveness and long-term consequences of full body stretching.
Variables Considered When Assessing Aging
There are several factors to consider when evaluating how someone is aging, including their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. These variables often intertwine and can be influenced by numerous factors, such as genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Although your behaviors and where you live are more under your control, our goal at FP is to exceed the genetic potential of people by training the nonathletic to move like athletes.
Shown below is how the concept of integrating muscles instead of isolating is applied to lifting an object off the ground, creating full body stretching. If done with the right structural foundation prioritizing the FP “Big 4” - standing, walking, running, and throwing - most muscles go through the phases of shortening and lengthening. Moving efficiently will account for comprehensive stretching throughout the body, largely eliminating the need for full body stretching routines.
The lifting exercise shown above is different from holding a stretch with the arms down to the toes and then standing up again. This lifting exercise involves bending the knees and flexing the spine which allows contraction of the muscles on the front line of the body. When the object is lifted up, the load is distributed across multiple muscle groups resulting in the contraction of the back line and the lengthening of the front line. The stretch in this lifting exercise is reciprocated in both positions, from flexing to extending. Full body stretches such as reaching for the toes are passive since the back of the body stretches and the front of the body slumps forward or compresses. The length created in the spine from this passive stretch isn’t supported by any muscular engagement.
Why Stretching Isn't the Answer to Aging
As mentioned earlier, full body stretching might not be the best approach for promoting healthy aging, as it can potentially have a detrimental effect on muscle function and movement. FP advocates focusing on the "Big 4" as the foundation for maintaining youthfulness and functionality. By training around these core movements, individuals can develop a more robust and adaptable body that is better equipped to handle the challenges of aging. Throughout the aging process, an adaptable body should be able to maintain coordination and strength to complete all daily essential functions, like chores, without risk of injury or falling over. Although there are some full body stretches used in FP training, they are intentionally prescriptive and aren't used as daily habits like most traditional stretching routines.
One likely downside of full body stretching is creating joint range of motion without appropriate muscle contractions. Examples include reaching the hands to toes or rotating the hips back and forth which will eventually negatively affect overall muscle function and movement. Overemphasis on stretching could lead to overlooking other crucial aspects of fitness and healthy aging, such as the FP “Big 4” and muscular elastic recoil.
Functional Patterns - A Better Approach to Healthy Aging
Healthy aging as it relates to physical health means preserving muscular elastic recoil, stability while standing, and efficiently walking, running, and throwing. These are the main functions used to assess a person's health since they are what humans have evolved to perform most.
We hypothesize at FP that the closer a person moves like an elite athlete such as Barry Sanders, Bo Jackson, or Lebron James, the more graceful their aging process will be. FP corrective exercises aim to optimize movement around the FP “Big 4” to improve the elasticity of muscles and fascia that will extend to improving all other movements. Training muscular elastic recoil through FP dynamic exercise is intended to mimic movements like sprinting and throwing that contract muscles in sequence to generate large amounts of force.
Functional Patterns offers a comprehensive system that addresses multiple variables and factors when it comes to human performance and aging. The FP system has helped many people around the world regain their functionality, improving their overall quality of life. By focusing on the "Big 4" core movements, individuals can experience a more well-rounded and effective approach to maintaining youthfulness and combating the effects of aging.
Practical Tips for Incorporating Functional Patterns into Your Practice
To fully reap the benefits of Functional Patterns and promote healthy aging, consider incorporating the following tips into your daily practice:
- Re-tension muscles: Choose re-tensioning of muscles with myofascial release (MFR) in the first three weeks of the FP 10 week online course rather than choosing traditional top stretches for the whole body.
- Prioritize functional training: Instead of solely focusing on isolated muscle stretching, integrate functional exercises that target multiple muscle groups that improve the FP “Big 4.”
- Learn proper technique: Ensure you're performing the "Big 4" core movements – standing, walking, running, and throwing – with correct technique. This may require guidance from an FP certified practitioner.
- Listen to your body: Pay attention to your body's signals during everyday movements such as walking or picking objects up. This can bring awareness to body asymmetries or muscle overcompensation.
While stretching can offer some benefits, it is not the ultimate answer to aging. It's crucial not to overlook the importance of other aspects of healthy aging, such as myofascial release (MFR) and muscular elastic recoil. By focusing on the FP "Big 4" - standing, walking, running, and throwing - you can develop an approach to comprehensive stretching and how to stay young throughout your active life.
If you're interested in learning more about Functional Patterns and its unique approach to fitness and healthy aging, be sure to watch the Functional Podcast on YouTube and Instagram. This valuable resource can provide you with even more insights and information on how to achieve optimal physical, mental, and emotional well-being as you age.
Maintaining youthfulness isn't just about incorporating the best full body stretches into your practice, it's about adopting a holistic approach to training by prioritizing the FP “Big 4.” Explore Functional Patterns to discover the secrets to maintaining your youthfulness and vitality for years to come.
Learn more about Functional Patterns and stretching in the following resources:
- Why Do My Knees Hyperextend And Will Stretching Help?
- A Critical Look At Stretching And Yoga
- Functional Patterns: WHY STRETCH?
- Naudi Aguilar: Specificity in training
- Functional Patterns: Stop Stretching Your Sciatica
- Functional Patterns: DON’T STRETCH
- Why Stretching Doesn't Work | With Mike Mucciolo
- Functional Patterns: RECIPROCAL INHIBITION
- The Dysfunctions Of Stretching
- Functional Patterns: IMPROVE YOUR STRETCHING
- Functional Patterns: An important message from FP Founder, Naudi Aguilar
- Naudi Aguilar From Hamstring Stretches, Sciatica, And Knee Instability
- Naudi Aguilar: Stretching is counting. Correcting dysfunctions is trigonometry
- Katalinic, O. M., Harvey, L. A., Herbert, R. D., Moseley, A. M., Lannin, N. A., & Schurr, K. "Stretch for the treatment and prevention of contracture: an abridged republication of a Cochrane Systematic Review." Journal of Physiotherapy, vol. 63, no. 2, 2017, pp. 67-75. PubMed, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28146605/.
- Page, Phil. "Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation." International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, vol. 7, no. 1, 2012, pp. 109-119. PMC, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. "Stretching: Focus on flexibility." Mayo Clinic, 22 January 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/stretching/art-20047931.