Flexibility for longevity - maintaining your range of motion
Flexibility often doesn't get the same emphasis as strength or endurance training when it comes to building a longevity routine. As long as we can bend down to pick up a dropped pencil or easily reach for the salt across the table, then we tend not pay it much attention. In reality, there is a wealth of strong evidence supporting the link between flexibility and healthspan, and maintaining your range of motion should be a crucial pillar of any longevity routine.
Flexibility naturally decreases as we age, which in turn impacts balance, stability and eventually the ability to carry out day-to-day activities. After the age of 50, the ability to stand up from a sitting position on the floor without using your hands for support decreases the risk of death in the next six years by more than five times . At any stage of life, engaging in flexibility training reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and death by 25% and 20%, respectively .
Luckily, age-related loss of flexibility isn’t inevitable! Through regular deep stretching practices, you can maintain your range of motion as you age, while bringing additional benefits for your muscles, mind and overall physiology.
The importance of flexibility and stretching for longevity
On average, we lose around 1% of our range of motion each year after the age of five . This has severe consequences over the course of a lifetime, as flexibility is linked to independence, positive mental health and the ability to continue performing basic activities of daily living, like cooking, washing and getting dressed. In keeping with this, some of the biggest risk factors for premature aging are physical injuries or illnesses that limit range of motion, such as previous hip fractures, foot and ankle injuries or deformities, joint problems, and sciatica or other spinal issues impacting mobility.
The good news, however, is that a simple stretching protocol of only five minutes per muscle group per week can keep you limber well into your later years. As well as greatly decreasing your risk of death and cardiovascular disease (as mentioned above) [1, 2], having a better range of motion reduces your likelihood of sustaining injuries and enables a quicker recovery if injuries do occur, meaning less time spent in bed accumulating risk factors for chronic disease .
The act of stretching itself also has benefits beyond just increasing flexibility. It elicits powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects, both within the muscle being stretched and over the entire body. Just 10 days of yoga-based stretching significantly reduces cardiovascular risk factors and positively impacts levels of inflammatory markers (adiponectin and interleukin-6) . Stretching has immediate benefits to brain function too; it induces relaxation , improves sleep , boosts mood, and alleviates anxiety and stress, especially when combined with breathwork or yoga [9, 10]. Stretching regularly also has a profound impact on your brain’s response to pain, as shown by a study that found yoga practitioners had roughly double the pain tolerance of non-practitioners .
Tips to include in your longevity protocol:
- Aim to do at least three stretching sessions per week. Studies show that the frequency of stretching is the most important factor for improving range of motion , and that three sessions per week was the optimal number for lasting benefits[12}.
- Make sure you are stretching each major muscle group, including the shoulders, arms, chest, abdomen, back, glutes, thighs and calves.
- Aim to stretch each muscle for a total of at least 5 minutes a week. A review of studies found that this was the optimum amount required to increase range of motion .
- Static stretches are the most effective kind. They were shown to improve range of motion more than ballistic or dynamic stretches .
- Don’t push too far into the stretch. A study found that stretching to 30% (where 100% is causing you pain) was more effective than stretching to 80% .
- Aim to hold your stretches for no longer than 30 seconds. After that the effectiveness plateaus and the risk of injury increases .
- Breathe slowly and deeply, pushing into the stretch when you exhale. This will enhance the cognitive benefits and allow you to stretch the muscle further.
- Perform static stretches when your core body temperature is high, so after a workout, high-intensity physical activity or a sauna. This will help offset muscle fatigue, prevent injury and boost muscle growth.
- Stretch before bed to improve your sleep. 60 minutes of gentle stretching has been shown to greatly improve sleep quality .
- Try stretching your quads and hamstrings while you brush your teeth - you’ll have time for 4 x 30-second sets!
For this month’s longevity challenge, we want you to try out incorporating as many of the above points as possible. See which activities work best for you and what you can implement long-term into your longevity protocol.
If you'd prefer more of a structured program to follow, below are some suggested protocols taken directly from scientific studies that have demonstrated significant improvements for health and performance. You could try out some of these, or make your own protocol based around our advice above - either way, let us know on the Zest Monthly Longevity Challenges group how you are getting on!
Quick and easy protocol for maintaining range of motion:
- Stretch a range of muscles (e.g. hamstring, quad, calf, tricep, shoulder) for 30 seconds, five times within a week.
- Across six weeks, this protocol was shown to improve range of motion as much as 3 x 1-minute stretches, five days/week .
Optimal protocol for improving range of motion:
- Stretch each muscle five times within a week for a total of at least five minutes.
- A review of multiple studies found that stretching at least five times per week, for a total of five minutes or more, was the optimal amount needed to improve range of motion . (It also found that stretching for a longer period within each session did not increase the improvement.)
- E.g. Do 2 x 30-sec hamstring stretches (stretching other muscles between sets) five times within a week.
Protocol for improved exercise performance:
- Do 40 minutes of lower body stretching (3 x 15-seconds on each muscle), three times within a week.
- Over 10 weeks, this was found to improve flexibility, standing long jump, vertical jump and 20m sprint time .
Protocol for improved sleep:
- Do 45 minutes of low-intensity stretching in the evening, three times within a week.
- This protocol was found to significantly improve sleep after four months .