Image for elderly stretching article Now that you’ve heard about all the benefits of exercise as you age, you’re ready to hit the gym or the dance floor…or at least go for a daily walk. There’s only one problem: your joints don’t seem to want to cooperate. In fact, if you were any stiffer, you might be mistaken for a mannequin. Is it too late to limber up?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, flexibility (the range of motion of a joint, or group of joints) decreases with age and physical inactivity. Inactivity can cause your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to get shorter over time. However, regardless of your age, you can increase your flexibility and prepare your body for activity by incorporating stretching into your daily routine. Don’t forget, though, that aerobic fitness and strengthening are also very important for the health of elders. Balance-improving exercise such as Tai Chi may also improve well-being and reduce the risk of falling.

The Benefits of Stretching Exercises

A daily stretching routine can improve your:

Physical Performance—Increased flexibility can make it easier and less tiring for you to perform daily tasks such as lifting, bending, turning, and engaging in other repetitive movements.

Circulation—Stretching increases the temperature of your muscle tissue, which increases the circulation in that area. Improved circulation helps keep your tissues healthy.

Posture—Short, frequent stretches throughout the day can keep your muscles from getting tight. This helps you to maintain proper posture and reduce aches and pains due to tight muscles.

Resistance to Stress-related Muscle Tension—By helping your muscles to relax, stretching can reduce pain associated with muscle tension.

Coordination and Balance—Lack of flexibility can lead to loss of balance, causing falls and injuries. A regular stretching routine can help you maintain a good range of motion and prevent injuries that could lead to loss of mobility now or in the future.

Stretching: How Much, How Often, and When?

The National Institute on Aging and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend the following tips on how much, how often, and when you should stretch:

  • Stretch lightly before engaging in strength and endurance activities, with a more thorough stretching routine after your workout.
  • If you’re unable to do strength or endurance exercises for some reason, but able to do stretching exercises, you should do them at least three times per week, for at least 20 minutes per session.
  • Do each stretching exercise 3-4 times during each session.
  • Stretch slowly and as far as possible without pain. Hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds. Relax, and then try to stretch further with each repetition.

Safety Tips

  • Talk to your doctor before engaging in a new exercise program.
  • If you have had a hip replacement, talk to your surgeon before doing lower body exercises. If you’ve had a hip replacement, you should not cross your legs or bend your hips past a 90-degree angle.
  • Warm up before you stretch. A little bit of easy walking or arm pumping should be sufficient. If you stretch your muscles before they have warmed up, you could injure yourself.
  • Mild discomfort or a mild pulling sensation is normal during stretching, but you should never stretch until you feel pain, especially joint pain. If you feel pain, reduce the stretch so that it doesn’t hurt.
  • Slowly ease into a stretch. Do not bounce. Jerking into a stretch can cause muscle tightening and increase your risk of injury.
  • Do not lock your joints into place when you straighten them during a stretch. Your arms and legs should be straight when you stretch them, but not tightly straight. You should have a very small amount of bending in your joints.

From Timber to Limber: Strrrrrrrrrrrretch Those Muscles!

These exercises, from the National Institute of Aging, can help increase your flexibility when performed on a regular basis:

Hamstrings (back of thighs)

Calves (lower leg muscles)


Triceps (back of upper arms)


Quadriceps (front of thighs)

Single Hip Rotation

Shoulder Rotation

Neck Rotation


Stretches muscles in back of thigh.

  1. Sit sideways on bench or other hard surface (such as two chairs placed side by side).
  2. Keep one leg stretched out on bench, straight, toes pointing up.
  3. Keep other leg off of bench, with foot flat on floor.
  4. Straighten back.
  5. If you feel a stretch at this point, hold the position for 10-30 seconds.
  6. If you don't feel a stretch, lean forward from hips (not waist) until you feel stretching in leg on bench, keeping back and shoulders straight. Omit this step if you have had a hip replacement, unless surgeon/therapist approves.
  7. Hold position for 10-30 seconds.
  8. Repeat with other leg.
  9. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.


Stretches lower leg muscles in two ways: with knee straight and knee bent.

  1. Stand with hands against wall, arms outstretched and elbows straight.
  2. Keeping your left knee slightly bent, toes of right foot slightly turned inward, step back 1-2 feet with right leg, heel, and foot flat on floor. You should feel a stretch in your calf muscle, but you shouldn't feel uncomfortable. If you don't feel a stretch, move your foot farther back until you do.
  3. Hold position for 10-30 seconds.
  4. Bend knee of right leg, keep heel and foot flat on floor.
  5. Hold position for another 10-30 seconds.
  6. Repeat with left leg.
  7. Repeat 3-5 times for each leg.


Stretches front ankle muscles.

  1. Remove your shoes. Sit toward the front edge of a chair and lean back, using pillows to support your back.
  2. Stretch legs out in front of you.
  3. With your heels still on the floor, bend ankles to point feet toward you.
  4. Bend ankles to point feet away from you.
  5. If you don't feel the stretch, repeat with your feet slightly off the floor.
  6. Hold the position for one second.
  7. Repeat 3-5 times.

Triceps Stretch

Stretches muscles in back of upper arm.

  1. Hold one end of a towel in right hand.
  2. Raise and bend right arm to drape towel down back. Keep your right arm in this position, and continue holding onto the towel.
  3. Reach behind your lower back and grasp bottom end of towel with left hand.
  4. Climb left hand progressively higher up towel, which also pulls your right arm down. Continue until your hands touch, or as close to that as you can comfortably go.
  5. Reverse positions.
  6. Repeat each position 3-5 times.

Wrist Stretch

Stretches wrist muscles.

  1. Place hands together, in praying position.
  2. Slowly raise elbows so arms are parallel to floor, keeping hands flat against each other.
  3. Hold position for 10-30 seconds.
  4. Repeat 3-5 times.


Stretches muscles in front of thighs.

  1. Lie on side on the floor. Your hips should be lined up so that one is directly above the other one.
  2. Rest head on pillow or hand.
  3. Bend knee that is on top.
  4. Reach back and grab heel of that leg. If you can't reach your heal with your hand, loop a belt over your foot and hold belt ends.
  5. Gently pull that leg until front of thigh stretches.
  6. Hold position for 10-30 seconds.
  7. Reverse position and repeat.
  8. Repeat 3-5 times on each side. If the back of your thigh cramps during this exercise, stretch your leg and try again, more slowly.

Single Hip Rotation

Stretches muscles of pelvis and inner thigh. Don't do this exercise if you have had a hip replacement, unless your surgeon approves.

  1. Lie on your back on floor, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Keep shoulders on floor throughout exercise.
  3. Lower one knee slowly to side, keeping the other leg and your pelvis in place.
  4. Hold position for 10-30 seconds.
  5. Bring knee back up slowly.
  6. Repeat with other knee.
  7. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.

Shoulder Rotation

Stretches shoulder muscles.

  1. Lie flat on floor, pillow under head, legs straight. If your back bothers you, place a rolled towel under your knees.
  2. Stretch arms straight out to side. Your shoulders and upper arms will remain flat on the floor throughout this exercise.
  3. Bend elbows so that your hands are pointing toward the ceiling. Let your arms slowly roll backwards from the elbow. Stop when you feel a stretch or slight discomfort, and stop immediately if you feel a pinching sensation or a sharp pain.
  4. Hold position for 10-30 seconds.
  5. Slowly raise your arms, still bent at the elbow, to point toward the ceiling again. Then let your arms slowly roll forward, remaining bent at the elbow, to point toward your hips. Stop when you feel a stretch or slight discomfort.
  6. Hold position for 10-30 seconds.
  7. Alternate pointing above head, then toward ceiling, then toward hips. Begin and end with pointing-above-head position.
  8. Repeat 3-5 times.

Neck Rotation

Stretches neck muscles.

  1. Lie on the floor with a phone book or other thick book under your head.
  2. Slowly turn head from side to side, holding position each time for 10-30 seconds on each side. Your head should not be tipped forward or backward, but should be in a comfortable position. You can keep your knees bent to keep your back comfortable during this exercise.
  3. Repeat 3-5 times.