Keeping limber helps seniors stretch independence

But stretching is an activity that young and old alike are tempted to ignore.

The American Council on Exercise includes stretching as part of its recommendations for older exercisers (along with regular cardiovascular and strength training). The good news is that stretching is an activity you can do every day, anywhere, any time. If you haven't stretched regularly before, look for classes at local Jewish community centers or senior centers to learn the basics of safe stretching.

Another helpful resource is "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stretching" (Macmillan). Author Chris Verna helps athletes Nick Price and John Elway reach their maximum potential. In this book he offers tips on sport-specific stretches as well as a chapter devoted to full-body flexibility for seniors.

Basic stretching should follow every workout, but yoga and tai chi are two activities that offer full-body flexibility routines. These activities may offer other health benefits, including stress relief and strength-building.

Tai chi has long been a fitness mainstay among older adults in China, and researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine suspect this martial art may even lower blood pressure as effectively as moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. Tai chi's series of slow, relaxed movements certainly improves functional flexibility and balance.

If you choose to stretch on your own, be sure to do it safely. Here's how:

*Use static instead of ballistic stretches. In other words, hold a stretch and never bounce.

*Hold stretches for five to 40 seconds (five to 10 deep breaths). Breathe deeply and evenly to deliver oxygen to muscles. You want to be relaxed, not tense, when stretching.

*Stretch to the point where it's a gentle challenge. Stretching should never be painful.

*Stretch after exercise, when muscles are warm. If you're stretching on a rest day, do a gentle physical activity for five to 10 minutes first to promote blood flow in the muscles.

*Develop a full-body stretching program. While it's tempting to target only the muscles you use for your favorite activity, it's important to stretch from head to toe.

*Use props. If it's hard to touch your toes at first, make it easier. Try this: Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you. If your hamstrings are very tight and it's hard to keep your legs straight, sit on a folded blanket or two; lean forward. If your fingers don't easily reach your toes, try looping a folded towel or a belt around your feet. Pull yourself forward until you feel a gentle stretch. Hold for five to 10 full, deep breaths.

Finally, the more you stretch, the more limber you'll get.

Dr. Rich Blake, senior podiatrist at the Center for Sports Medicine at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, recommends stretching three times a day to improve flexibility and once a day to maintain flexibility. Stiffness as we get older isn't just a matter of age — it comes with a lifetime of disuse. But consistent stretching will keep you moving for years to come.