Yoga is a beautiful practice that, in addition to calming stress and anxiety, is equal parts stretching and strengthening. Why does this matter? As we age, we lose both strength and mobility, and unless we work to keep both, we will lose both. Neither one is more important than the other, they are both equal; without mobility you lack the ability to move, without strength you lose stability.
Take the simple act of walking. If your hips, hamstrings, or lower back are tight, it will be difficult to walk with ease. You will struggle to stand up straight, and your gait will be shortened or possibly uneven. Standing up after sitting for long periods will be painful, either in your hips, your lower back, or both. You may notice pain in other parts of your body too. It’s not just “old age” that makes it tough to move, it could be lack of mobility.
If your legs and core are weak, it will become difficult to walk for long periods of time. You will feel unstable, as if your legs could give out at any moment, and you may lose your balance. Muscle weakness can also lead to pain due to compensation: some muscles overwork to make up for the weak muscles and it causes strain and imbalance. Over time, this can also throw off your gait and lead to falls and injury. The muscle weakness doesn’t have to be global weakness, you might just have weakness in some muscles from underuse and improper body mechanics.
For example, I have always been an active person (swimming, yoga, dance, walking) and I went for years never using my glutes. I had no idea, I figured that because I was swimming and practicing yoga that I was using all my muscles. Flexibility has never been a problem for me as a former dancer and avid yoga practitioner. When I turned 39, suddenly I started having lower back pain. I saw one of the PTs in my office and she said my glutes were weak. “How could that be?! I am so active!?” I told her. But it was true. During my next yoga class I realized that I did the whole class and never once used my glutes. I knew this because I had to actively engage them as I practiced, they weren’t firing naturally. Once I started intentionally engaging my glutes as I practiced and swam, my lower back pain disappeared and never returned. I am now 50 and I still don’t have lower back pain (unless I sit with poor posture for long periods, which I rarely do, or I forget to use my glutes). I intentionally engage my glutes when I practice yoga and pilates, and when I swim. When I go for walks, I know I’m not using my glutes when my right hip starts to “talk to me.” When I fire up my glutes, the pain disappears. It’s like magic.
Strengthening is not the whole picture though, it’s important to stretch too. If you are a weight lifter or athlete and only strengthen, you will lose mobility over time. You can tell the people in the gym who don’t stretch because they struggle with full range in their exercises, like stiff leg dead-lifts, flies, or even getting on and off the bench easily. If you can’t touch your toes or easily put your hand behind your head or behind your back, you need to work on mobility. If you swim and struggle to get your arms out of the water, mobility might be the issue. And I’m not talking about extreme flexibility where you put your foot behind your head, there is nothing functional about that. The mobility that I’m talking about is functional mobility. It allows you reach your feet to put on your shoes and socks, fasten your bra behind your back, or reach up and grab something from a shelf above your head. For more on this read “Flexibility vs. Mobility As We Age.”
Stretching and strengthening your body regularly will keep you moving and active for the long term. As we age, regular, mindful stretching and intentional strengthening will keep your body feeling able to do the activities and sports your love to do. Injury is often caused by not paying attention to what your body is telling you (see “What Does it Mean to ‘Listen to Your Body?'”) or when you over use one muscle or group and underuse the group that should be working (like with my glutes).
An amazing yoga pose that both stretches and strengthens the body is Downward Facing Dog. It stretches and strengthens the whole body in the Sagittal plane (the plane of forward and backward movement). You stretch the hamstrings and calves, the lats and lateral ribs, while strengthening the shoulders, upper back, quads and lower abdominals. One pose does not a yoga practice make, but it’s a place to start to work on both strength and mobility.
Downward Facing Dog
Start in Table on your hands and knees, with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Spread your fingers apart and press the whole surface of your palms into the mat. Spread your shoulder blades apart, tuck your toes under, and start to shift your weight backward toward your feet. Lift your knees off the floor and reach the hips away from your palms. To start, keep the knees bent and lengthen the distance between your palms and hips by reaching the hips/sit bones away from the palms. Feel you upper back widening and your shoulders moving away from your ears. Press the palms forward and downward into the mat as you reach your hips upward and backward in the opposite direction. Move your chest toward your thighs to feel the stretch through your shoulders and armpits. Try to keep the spine straight. Engage your pelvic floor and lower abdominals while reaching your heels toward the floor, straightening the legs. The heels may or may not touch the floor, but you will feel the quads engaging and the hamstrings and calves stretching. Keep the backs of your knees soft so that you don’t press back into your knees. If you find that you need to round your lower back in order to straighten the legs, just keep your knees slightly bent. It’s more important to keep the spine straight than have the legs straight. As your hamstrings stretch out, it will be easier to fully straighten the legs.
Watch my free video “Top 5 Moves to Strength and Support Your Lower Back.” It’s 10 minutes to strengthen the core, and stretch and strengthen the lower back and related muscles.
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