Before you blame muscle stiffness on your age, consider: when was the last time you stretched? Light stretching can treat tight hamstrings, cramped back muscles, and rounded shoulders—all while making you feel better and stronger. Keep reading for my top 3 stretches for seniors!
Stretching for Pain Relief
Among the many tools available for pain relief, stretching is one of the most underutilized. Everyone can benefit from stretching, but seniors especially so. Stretches for seniors can help improve muscle function, loosen tight knots, and relieve pain—all at no cost. And as a physical therapist, I see it work its magic every day.
In the clinic, I often work with aging adults who are constantly fighting tight muscles, stiff joints, and the pain that results from these issues. I’ve found that the most commonly affected areas include:
- tight hamstrings
- stiff back muscles, and
- rounded shoulders, caused by chest tightness and poor posture.
Thankfully, some key stretches can target these areas and help reverse years of stiffness and muscle weakness. Below are three of my most recommended stretches for seniors, with variations and modifications to suit most anyone. Each stretch is easy to do at home and requires no equipment.
3 Easy Stretches for Seniors:
1. Hamstring Stretch
We begin with the granddaddy of all tight muscles: your hamstrings. Located on the back of each thigh, the hamstring muscles help bend your knee and extend your hip joint. But, unfortunately, this muscle group is notorious for becoming very tight. Keeping the knees bent in a prolonged sitting posture is one of the most common reasons for tight hamstrings. And sitting is the posture we find ourselves in most often, especially as we age.
But the good news is that you can counteract all that sitting with some light stretching. Here are three ways to stretch your hamstrings, and the first can even be done in your chair.
To begin, find a firm chair and sit tall on the edge of it. Extend one leg straight out in front of you, with your heel on the ground and foot flexed.
Keeping your trunk upright, gently lean forward toward your extended leg. You should feel a stretch behind the knee. Hold this stretch for 20–30 seconds and repeat on the other side. Alternating sides, try to do 5–10 rounds of this stretch.
For this version, stand tall alongside a countertop, table, or sturdy chair—something you can grab for support if you need it. Next, extend one leg forward and sink your weight into the heel of the foot that’s extended.
With an upright trunk, gently lean forward, hinging at your hips. You should feel a stretch along the back of your leg. Hold this stretch for 20–30 seconds, and repeat on the other side for 5–10 rounds.
The “supine” version of the hamstring stretch is perhaps the deepest of the three. That’s because it uses active contraction of one muscle—your quadriceps—to help stretch another muscle group—your hamstrings. In physical therapy, we call this technique an “active” stretch.
Begin in the supine position, or lying on your back on a flat surface. Lift one leg and bring your knee to your chest while keeping the opposite leg straight and on the ground.
From here, slowly kick your bent knee so it extends towards the ceiling.
Instead of holding for a long count, hold this stretch for 3–5 seconds before relaxing your leg, then repeat the stretch-and-release 10 times on each side.
2. Cat/Cow Stretch
Stiffness in your mid- and low back can stem from multiple causes, such as arthritis, disc issues, and even tight muscles in your back. But just like with your hamstrings, stretching your back can help loosen stiff spots and soothe tight muscles.
Below is one of my favorite stretches for seniors with back stiffness: the Cat/Cow stretch, in two iterations.
The most widely-known version of this stretch takes place on all fours in a quadruped position. So if you feel comfortable, get on your hands and knees on the floor or on your bed. Start with a flat back, with your hips directly over your knees and your shoulders over your hands.
Next, pull up your abdominal muscles and arch your back towards the ceiling, like an angry cat. Slowly reverse direction and extend your back flat so it curves down like a cow’s. Repeat this movement 5–10 times, and you should feel your back muscles mobilizing and stretching further with each motion. Try to perform 3–5 rounds of the Cat/Cow stretch throughout the day.
If getting on all fours is uncomfortable for you, then try this version of the Cat/Cow. Stand facing a countertop, sink, or sturdy chair, and place your hands palms-down on the edge of it. Then take a step back so your arms extend forward and your back flattens like a tabletop.
From here, perform the cat/cow stretch by arching your back like an angry cat’s, then reverse the curve and extend it flat like a cow’s. Repeat this movement 5–10 times, performing 3–5 rounds throughout the day.
3. Chest Stretch
If you’re sore in your mid-back, I’ll bet you’re also tight in your chest muscles. The two often go hand-in-hand: tight chest muscles beget poor posture, and poor posture, characterized by rounded shoulders, can weaken the back muscles needed to maintain upright posture. So, to strengthen the back and improve posture, we need to stretch the tight chest muscles in the front and break the cycle of slouching and soreness.
Every senior should fight to maintain good posture as they age. Below are two ways to stretch tight chest muscles and help achieve that end.
Stand with your back against the wall, and raise your arms up and to the side to make a “Y” shape. Next, slowly slide your arms up and down along the wall, as if you’re making snow “angels.”
The key to this movement is to maintain contact with the wall the whole time. As you reach up, you should feel a stretch in your chest.
Perform 10–15 repetitions of this stretch, up and down, 2–3 times a day.
Follow those wall angels with some chest-opening stretches. While standing tall against a wall, start with your arms extended straight in front of you with palms facing each other. Then open your arms out wide to the side, as if you are offering a hug.
As you open up your chest, allow your arms to go back as far as you comfortably can. You may even need to take a few steps forward from the wall to achieve a full range of motion.
Wherever you feel that stretch in your chest, hold the position for 5–10 seconds before returning to start. Repeat this stretch 10–15 times.
Stretches for Seniors: Final Thoughts
When performing a stretch routine like this one, make sure you are moving slowly and carefully. You should avoid fast or jerky movements that could cause sharp pain. A slow, controlled approach to stretching is always safer—and more effective—than a speedy session.
Finally, don’t forget to check with your doctor or physical therapist before engaging in a stretching or exercise routine. And remember to be consistent with whatever routine they recommend; the best results come from daily, deliberate habits!