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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I am a 53-year-old male who practices martial arts and trains at the gym. I have always had a problem with flexibility. Now my kicks and splits are not as high or wide as they were three or four years ago and I wonder if I can get back to that point or beyond it. Can I increase my flexibility significantly as I age and if I can, what types of stretches and exercise should I concentrate on?

(Article continued below.)

You can increase flexibility at any age, but you need to do it consciously. A person who trains to become more flexible is actually lengthening the muscle groups stretched. Unless those muscles are also being strengthened, this may create an imbalance that can be a set up for injury. Dancers often remain active into old age and retain more flexibility than other people, mainly because of their lifelong histories of creating long, strong muscles.

You say that you have always had a problem with flexibility; this is not an uncommon complaint among men. You practice martial arts regularly and you have a regular strength-training program - this is all great, but do you have a flexibility program? How often are you stretching? It's important to stretch after any physical activity. This is especially important when it comes to strength training. Strength training makes muscles shorter and bulkier - you need to stretch those muscles out or their range of motion will lessen. A person should stretch for ten minutes at the very least after 45 minutes to an hour at the weights. Ideally, you should stretch out your muscles after each set. That way you are lengthening your muscles as you are strengthening them. (Stretching between sets, by the way, isn't necessarily recommended for those who are trying for extra bulk or want intense strength gains - but more flexibility is not a goal for these people.) It's always best to stretch your muscles after they are warm, which is why post-workout stretching is a good idea. You want your muscles and joints supple, not stiff. Picture your muscles as a piece of gum. Gum that is still warm from being chewed will stretch a lot more easily than gum that has spent the night in a freezer - you get the idea.

It's also important to pay attention to the way you are stretching. It's really quite a gentle process. If you have any type A tendencies, put them on the backburner when you stretch. You shouldn't be going for a personal best when you stretch; to do so can injure you, and it will also make you less flexible. The muscles rebel when stretched too far too fast and will want to snap back. What you want is for your muscles to give themselves to the stretch, and that cannot be accomplished by forcing. Stretch until you feel some tension, and then allow yourself to breathe and relax into it. If you can't relax you've gone too far - back up. If you are able to relax you will often find that your muscles will allow you to stretch farther. In stretching you let your muscles and joints take the lead. They will tell you when to deepen the stretch and when to pull back. Patience is one of the main keys to stretching, especially as you get older. It may take you longer to regain or attain flexibility, but if you take time with your stretching, you will increase your range of motion.

There are different schools when it comes to stretching. Two of the most well known are static stretching and active-isolated stretching. You're probably familiar with static stretching - that's when you hold a stretch for 10 to 30 seconds or more. Active-isolated stretching involves more movement, and you hold the stretches for just two seconds (this keeps the muscles from rebelling against the stretch). It's used in many pro athletic circles. Stretch however you want to - just do it gently, safely and frequently. The best thing you can do when it comes to stretching and flexibility is to educate yourself as much as possible. Bob Anderson has several books on static stretching - if you aren't familiar with his best seller, Stretching, do check it out. If active-isolated stretching intrigues you, look for The Whartons' Stretch Book, which offers a detailed overview on how to do this type of stretching.

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