While many people prioritize exercise for good health, we often overlook a regular stretching practice. But if you're treating stretching like an afterthought, you're missing out on all the big body benefits that it can bring, particularly for healthy aging.
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Here, Jake Harcoff, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of AIM Athletic, explains the benefits of stretching before bed for older adults (and everyone else), plus which bedtime stretches are best.
7 Benefits of Stretching Before Bed for Healthy Aging
1. It Eases Stress
"I find that a key ingredient missing in most people's fitness routine is some sort of strategy for managing the accumulated stress of everyday life," Harcoff says.
"Unfortunately, the world we live in today is full of negative stressors, which chronically place many of us in the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for our fight or flight responses)," he explains.
But the simple act of stretching before sleep can help slash stress. That's because "stretching has a profound effect at stimulating the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for resting, digesting and healing the body," Harcoff says.
And that's why "a mindful stretching practice before bed is an effective tool to help ground us and inhibit the sympathetic nervous system for better health," he says.
2. It Reduces Inflammation
"When inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to many negative outcomes, especially as we get older," Harcoff says.
Fortunately, "stretching regularly can be very impactful on decreasing inflammatory markers in the body," Harcoff says. Gentle stretching at a low intensity "can help you relax and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which has an inflammatory regulating response on the body," he explains.
For example, a small July 2014 study in the American Journal of Sport Science and Medicine found that doing passive static stretching activates the parasympathetic nervous system (nerves that help you feel relaxed and less stressed) and continues to elicit parasympathetic nerve activity shortly after the session.
But keep in mind: The level of intensity makes a difference. "Stretching at higher intensities can be traumatic to the stretched tissue, which would have an opposite inflammatory effect," Harcoff says.
3. It Can Improve Your Sleep Quality
Along with creakier joints, getting older also brings a lesser quality of sleep. Yep, age is linked to a tougher time falling and staying asleep, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Making matters worse, winding down before bedtime can be a real challenge for many people, especially if you're all keyed up from the day, and your body remains in a sympathetic state (i.e., flight or fight mode).
"With the myriad of stressors that we have to deal with today, it is imperative for healthy aging that we manage our stress levels, so that the body can rest and repair, especially while we sleep when most of these processes take place," Harcoff says.
As we know, stretching is stellar for stress management. And that means that it can also positively affect your sleep.
"Many sleep experts talk about turning off screens and suggest implementing a mindfulness practice before getting into bed," Harcoff says. "Where I think stretching shines is as a tool for relaxation and mindfulness."
Again, that's because light stretching can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms your body.
4. It Lowers Your Risk of Injuries (Including Falls)
Stretching can also help us steer clear of injuries into our golden years.
Here's why: Stretching increases the force-length relationship of your muscles, Harcoff says. That means your muscles can both produce and manage a greater amount of force at various lengths, he explains. And as a result, this can help decrease muscle and tendon-related injuries.
What's more, "longer muscle lengths may allow for the body to more effectively maintain balance and avoid falls, which is especially more important as we age," Harcoff says.
Our risk of taking a tumble increases with age. In fact, every year, one in four older Americans will fall, and a fifth of these falls will cause a serious injury, such as broken bones or a head trauma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
5. It Increases Blood Flow
"Since stretching can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in dilation of the blood vessels to the muscle, stretching would theoretically increase blood flow to the muscles as well," Harcoff says.
That's especially important because some older adults deal with blood flow-related health issues. For example, "as we age, blood pressure can be a concern for many people, therefore stretching regularly to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system might be a great strategy for some," Harcoff says.
6. It Decreases the Frequency and Severity of Leg Cramps
As you age, you're more likely to experience nightly leg cramps, i.e., painful, involuntary muscle contractions that usually occur in your calf, foot or thigh. Case in point: 33 percent of adults over the age of 60 will suffer at least one nocturnal leg cramp bimonthly, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
While these sudden muscle pains can happen to people at any age, leg cramps are more common in older folks because the tendons (the connective tissues that attach muscles to bones) shorten as you grow older, per the Cleveland Clinic.
In addition, the frequency and severity of leg cramps also relate to poor hydration levels and nutrition deficiencies, Harcoff says. And since older people are more likely to be dehydrated and lacking in certain essential nutrients, this puts them at a greater risk.
The good news is that one of the benefits of stretching at night is that it may alleviate leg cramps. A small study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Physiotherapy found that stretching prior to hitting the hay helped reduce the frequency and severity of leg cramps in older adults
7. It Helps With Menopause Symptoms
While you can't stop the physiological changes that occur in menopause, you can do certain things to help decrease the discomfort. And one of those is stretching before bedtime.
In a small August 2016 study published in Menopause, researchers recruited 40 middle-aged Japanese women to follow a three-week stretching program. Results showed that doing just 10 minutes of stretches before bed helped decrease their menopausal and depressive symptoms.
But again, the level of intensity matters: "Light to moderate stretching will likely improve symptoms of menopause, but if the stretching becomes too vigorous in nature, it could have a deleterious effect instead," Harcoff says.
How to Stretch Before Bed
To stretch for relaxation, stress relief and recovery, Harcoff suggests picking five to 10 stretches and holding them for approximately 30 to 60 seconds each.
So, what stretches should you choose for the best benefits?
"If I decide to stretch before bed, I am most likely to stretch whatever feels the tightest, i.e., usually whatever muscle group I trained that day or the day prior," Harcoff says.
That means if you went hard on leg day, show your lower body some extra TLC and concentrate on stretching your major muscles, such as your quads, hamstrings, hips and glutes.
Additionally, "stretching the psoas muscles [the long muscle in your back that's located in the lower back area and stretches through the pelvis to the femur] might effectively lead to greater relaxation in the body before bed," Harcoff says.
That's because the vagus nerve (the nerves of your parasympathetic system) attaches to your psoas via your diaphragm and the medial arcuate ligament, Harcoff says. And the vagus nerve, when stimulated, can have a profound effect on relaxation and bring us into a parasympathetic state, he explains.
Some good psoas stretches include the runner's lunge, glute bridge and modified extended side angle pose. And remember, no matter which stretches you select, they should all be gentle and easy on your muscles.
"The level of stretch intensity should be about 60 percent of your maximum stretch," Harcoff says. "In other words, stretch until you find the first point of discomfort and then back off just enough until that discomfort is no longer felt," he explains.
The Best Bedtime Stretches for Relaxation
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Keep on Your Feet—Preventing Older Adult Falls”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Leg Cramps”
- Journal of Physiotherapy: “Stretching before sleep reduces the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps in older adults: a randomised trial”
- Menopause: “Effects of stretching on menopausal and depressive symptoms in middle-aged women: a randomized controlled trial”
- National Library of Medicine: “Aging changes in sleep”
- American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine: "Acute Changes in Autonomic Nerve Activity during Passive Static Stretching"