Stretching, flexibility key for joint health

Rosanna Turner
Vail Daily correspondent
Kelsey Horvath, Eva Pobjecka and Lindsey Kirby, left to right, actively stretc during a class with trainer Brent Sands at the Vail Vitality Center on Friday. The class is devoted to joint health and the importance of stretching.
Townsend Bessent | |

In kindergarten, you probably followed along with your teacher as they did a little “head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes” every morning as a way to get your bodies warmed up and ready to learn those ABCs and 123s. For most people, this practice of daily stretching doesn’t continue past grade school, despite the fact that as we age, it becomes increasingly important to maintain our flexibility and keep our joints healthy.

Kirsten Stuart, a certified personal trainer at Dogma Athletica in Edwards, said even athletes and those with an active lifestyle sometimes don’t stretch as much as they should.

“If we’re going to compare ourselves to a child, who has so much flexibility, then as we (age) we get more stiff and more rigid,” Stuart said. “It’s really important to stretch for even five minutes a day as we get older to work on our posture and range of motion.”

Stretching to stay pain free

Stretching has many health benefits, such as helping to decrease the risk of injury, improving physical performance, increasing range of motion and reducing the degeneration of our joints. Stuart said stretching and flexibility are vital to minimizing pain when we’re no longer spring chickens.

“Especially with my elderly clients, one of their biggest issues is staying pain free,” Stuart said. “In your 20s, you can go out and do anything, and you feel good. As we continue to get older, we start to ignore the aches and pains and push through that. Then these aches and pains get a little bit more twingey and a little bit more painful. … Then the twinges and aches and pains become injuries. The more proactive we are in our lives to create a smoother transition into aging, the more we’re going to all benefit.”

Seeing as how we’re taught to do it as children, stretching seems like an elementary concept. But then why is it so hard to get people to do this daily? Stuart said it’s often that people don’t think about their flexibility and joint health until there’s a problem.

“It’s hard to convey the importance of stretching the muscles and keeping the right posture unless someone’s been injured,” Stuart said. “It’s like telling someone, ‘This is why it’s important to take an anti-inflammatory.’ Then they don’t take it. Then finally they take the anti-inflammatory, and it’s like, ‘Wow, that made a huge difference.’”

Stuart said for many in the Vail Valley, we spend a lot of time using our lateral plane, in that we lean forward at work, then bike, hike or run, resulting in our glutes becoming weaker and our hip flexors becoming tighter. To counteract this, we need to focus on opening up the chest, doing extension exercises and postural lateral stretching.

Adding flexibility to your workout

While Stuart recommends everyone stretch for at least five minutes a day, others think most of us who lead a somewhat fit and active lifestyle could benefit from more than this. Brent Sands is a sports and strength training specialist who currently teaches a stretching and recovery class at the Vail Vitality Center. Sands said doing a solid 15 to 20 minutes of stretching post-workout is crucial because it increases blood flow to the fatigued areas, eliminates toxic waste products from cells, reduces soreness and improves muscle flexibility.

Sands uses a variety of methods during his class, like employing a TRX suspension trainer, foam rollers and dowel rods in order to show people some nontraditional stretches and recovery moves.

“We (all) went to PE class where we all did the butterfly stretch (and) just reached for our toes,” Sands said. “(But most) people don’t know all the techniques to engage all the different muscles to maintain good posture.”

Sands said one of the main reasons people don’t incorporate a stretching or recovery routine is lack of time.

“Some people’s schedules are so busy they allow for an hour workout, then they don’t allow for the next 20 minutes to cool down and stretch to improve their elasticity, reduce soreness and increase flexibility,” Sands said.

Unlike doing cardio or pumping iron, seeing the results of your stretching routine may not be as obvious at first, but Sands said most people notice a difference after attending his class.

“They say they’re back in the gym because they don’t feel the soreness,” Sands said. “It allows people to get back in (the gym) the next day.”

Building muscle for healthy joints

While stretching is one component to flexibility, having strong muscles could do more to protect your joints and decrease injury, said Luke O’Brien, physical therapist and vice president of physical therapy operations at Howard Head Sports Medicine.

“When stiff joints are combined with weak muscles, the problems in joints typically arrive,” O’Brien said.

Your muscles act as the first form of protection for your joint. O’Brien said some people who are very flexible yet have weaker muscles could be at a higher risk for injury, because their muscles aren’t able to take the impact off of the joint.

“People that are really flexible that undergo high impact activity, they are more likely to sustain a joint injury because … all the muscles, tendons and ligaments are all stretched out, so the force is less likely to be absorbed by those tissues,” he said.

In addition to building strong muscles, the joint-conscious should focus on maintaining a full range of motion in all parts of the body. Sometimes the reason locals experience degenerative joints is not knowing when to heed the caution of their own knees, shoulders and lower back.

“You might have a sore knee, but (you say to yourself), ‘The snow is great today. I gotta go out,’” O’Brien said. “Those patients typically are willing to go out and push things a little further, beyond what they’re (able) to handle.”

Listen to your joints

O’Brien said degenerative joint issues usually occur over time, but he doesn’t see joint pain as an inevitable part of getting older, which is why preventative measures are so essential.

“There are hundreds of joints in the body and, as we age, not every one of those joints becomes painful,” O’Brien said. “As you age you might have a right knee that’s painful but your left knee is completely fine, and the left knee for the most part has done just as much activity and experienced (the same) as the right knee has. It’s not a forgone conclusion that as we age every joint needs to be painful or weak or immobile.”

O’Brien said normal joints don’t swell, so “listen to what your joint is telling you. If it’s swollen or painful, then it’s not ready for activity.”

You may not think about your flexibility or joint health every day, but those who don’t may see the effects of not thinking about it later on down the line.

“You take it for granted when it’s good, but when it’s bad it has a more significant impact,” O’Brien said. “It’s important to maintain your joints, mobility and strength so that you can continue to do the activities you love for as long as possible.”

With stretching, just like many things in life, maybe your kindergarten teacher really did know best. A little bit each day can keep the physical therapist away, as long as you don’t cheat and bend your knees while trying to touch your toes.

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