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The best one-size-fits-all class for flexibility is an aerobic exercise group class. The ultimate goal is aerobic (cardiovascular) fitness, but instructors and their students have to go through warm-up and flexibility exercises before getting to the aerobic component.
If you are a beginner or older adult not used to regular exercise, make sure you choose a class appropriate for your age and condition, and that your instructor knows your limitations.
Yoga is a mind/body series of movements called asanas that combine stretching and controlled breathing to achieve relaxation and a stabilized mood. Its main purpose is not to improve range of motion or flexibility, but those attributes are clear benefits.
Yoga continues to gain in popularity, according to a new report from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. More than 21 million American adults, including three percent of those age 65 and older, say they’ve tried yoga in the past year.
For some people, yoga is an alternative or complementary exercise that promotes flexibility, strength, and endurance. For others, it is more of a spiritual experience. The general consensus is that yoga offers both physical and psychological benefits.
There are many varieties of yoga from which to choose based on your age, comfort level, and physical limitations. Many gyms offer “silver” yoga classes designed for older adults. Most integrate slow, gentle movements with a mixture of both standing and sitting poses.
Hatha and Iyengar yoga are all-around styles adopted by many yoga studios and gym classes. These styles place a greater emphasis on proper body alignment and balance. They also rely on props such as straps, bolsters, and blocks to help with support and reduce the risk of strain or injury.
Certain yoga styles might be better suited for older adults. For instance, chair yoga, in which all the movements are practiced while sitting in or using a chair for support, is ideal if you have mobility or balance problems.
Studies have shown that tai chi can improve balance, lower the risk of falls, and provide a sense of well-being. Reputable health institutions associate tai chi with aerobic capacity, less joint pain, energy, and stamina, but the evidence regarding tai chi and flexibility is not as strong.
The study most frequently cited was conducted at Stanford in 2006 and published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. The group comprised 39 women, average age 66, with below-average fitness and at least one cardiovascular risk factor, who took 36 tai chi classes over the course of 12 weeks. Tests showed significantly increased strength and flexibility in the upper and lower body.
However, since 2006, no major studies have associated tai chi with increased flexibility. In 2011, a presentation at the annual scientific meeting of the American College of Rheumatology reported that tai chi improved pain, fatigue, and stiffness caused by arthritis.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says, “In general, studies of tai chi have been small or they have had designs that may limit their conclusions. The cumulative evidence suggests that additional research is needed before tai chi can be widely recommended as an effective therapy.”
That said, there remains some evidence that it is beneficial for some individuals and that it is safe. In this way, its slow, gentle movements may be a easy entry point for some older adults to begin range-of-motion exercise.
Keep in mind that people with the following conditions should consult a physician before beginning a tai chi program:
- Chest pain with minimal exertion
- Severe shortness of breath
- Dizziness or fainting spells
- Uncontrolled blood pressure
- Gait and balance disorders
Pilates is a program of low-impact strength and endurance movements designed to increase core strength for better posture, balance, and flexibility. Most of the movements can be done on the floor or a mat, or specialized designed machines called reformers. These consist of a platform that moves back and forth along a carriage and straps to help execute and support movements . Programs can be individualized for beginners or seasoned exercisers.
Because Pilates is not aerobic exercise, it should be combined with other activities that get the heart rate into its target zone and keep it there for 10 to 30 minutes per session. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week.
Still, Pilates, like yoga, can offer range-of-motion movements that can improve flexibility. Pilates places a greater emphasis on strengthening the core compared to yoga, and helps to improve posture, both of which are key to greater flexibility. This is one reason Pilates is so popular among professional dancers, who rely on the practice to keep them limber and mobile.
Pilates is not recommended for people who have unstable blood pressure, a risk of blood clots, severe osteoporosis, or a herniated disc. Check with your doctor if you are not sure before enrolling in a Pilates course or class.
Do These Flexibility Exercises Help?
Each of these range-of-motion exercises have proven to be beneficial for certain individuals and physical conditions over extended periods of time. But keep in mind that what works for one person is not necessarily as effective for others.
In light of current research that indicates flexibility exercises and stretches should be task- or activity-specific, it is fair to ask how each of these exercise forms will help people—especially middle-aged and older adults—perform the normal activities of daily life. Does holding a yoga position, assuming a tai chi pose, or performing a Pilates exercise help you reach something on the top shelf, get up and out of a chair, or get into, drive, and get out of a car? If they do, then they might be the right choice of flexibility exercise for you. If not, there are other ways to safely achieve flexibility goals.
For more ways to improve your flexibility, purchase Easy Exercises for Flexibility at www.UniversityHealthNews.com.