As we age our bodies become less flexible. Flexibility is often taken for granted, much like good balance, until it gets a little harder to reach an upper shelf, pick up the newspaper, or put on socks. (Sorry, it’s not your arms getting shorter!)

Flexibility is the ability to move a joint (shoulder, elbow, knee, hip, fingers, etc.) through its full range of motion. For instance, when your joints are flexible and healthy, your wrist moves in circles and your knee moves back and forth like a hinge—smoothly and without sound effects (i.e., snap, crackle, and pop). However, as we grow older so do the connective tissues that surround, cushion, and hold these joints together. Soft tissue (cartilage, ligaments, and tendons) becomes stiffer and more rigid, reducing joint mobility.

Like aging itself, this is a “good news/bad news” story. The bad news: some rigidity is a normal part of aging. The good news: get off the couch, do a few appropriate stretching exercises and, no matter what your age, flexibility will increase from 20 to 50 percent. Furthermore, medical research indicates that stretching and increasing flexibility can help reduce falls, improve chronic pain and increase the range of motion for those with diseases such as arthritis, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. Now, that is fantastic news! So, let’s get started…

First, a few guidelines to keep your exercise program safe:

  1. Always check with your doctor before you begin any type of exercise program—even stretching! There may be personal safety measures that you need to take.
  2. Stretch in a secure and familiar environment with a partner nearby.
  3. Stretch 4 to 7 days a week.
  4. Always warm up by taking a short walk or marching in place for 5 minutes before you begin to stretch. Stretching “cold” muscles often leads to injury.
  5. Avoid ballistic (bouncing or jerking) movements.
  6. Repeat each exercise 3 to 5 times.
  7. Gradually increase the stretch as you become more comfortable.
  8. Have a partner read the descriptions and check your form as you perform the movements until the exercises are familiar.
  9. Stretching does not hurt. There may be a pulling sensation or slight discomfort but it should not be painful. If you experience pain, STOP.

Basic Stretching Exercises

The movements described below are gentle and basic. Each movement may be performed standing, sitting on a chair, on an inflatable disc or a balance ball. Some may also be done sitting on the floor or a bed. The supporting surface you choose will offer new and progressive levels of challenge. Until you become familiar with the movements, sit in a chair; then as you become more comfortable and proficient, increase the challenge.

Upper Body

Sit tall with lower back pressed firmly against the back of a chair (or stand up very straight) with chin tucked in so that ears are directly over the shoulders. Upper body stretching exercises are usually dynamic, meaning that the joints move between stretches. As such, repeat each stretch 3 to 5 times, holding, if needed, each position for 5 to 10 seconds.

Neck Stretch One

fitness trainer helping older woman lower chin properly for a neck stretch

A. Gently lower chin toward chest, hold for 5 seconds.

B. Slowly raise head to starting position concentrating rolling up one vertebra at a time. Repeat 3 to 5 times.

Neck Stretch Two

fitness trainer helping older woman turn head to her left for a neck stretch

A. Assume the starting position, sitting or standing tall.

B. Turn chin toward right shoulder, hold 5 seconds.

C. Turn to the left shoulder, hold and repeat 3 to 5 times.

Neck Stretch Three

fitness trainer helping older woman bend head to her left for a neck stretch

A. Again, sitting or standing tall, focus on an object at eye level.

B. Gently tip ear toward right shoulder as if tipping a teapot.

C. Repeat on left side.

D. Remember to hold 5 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times.

Arm Raises

A. Begin with arms resting at sides, shoulders relaxed.

seated older woman holding her arms straight up

B. Sweep arms up in an arc over your head with your palms facing the body.

fitness trainer helping seated older woman raise her arms above her head

C. At the top of the arc, hold for 5 seconds, flex wrists and turn palms toward the ceiling.

D. Lower your arms in an arc, palms facing outward, wrists slightly flexed, reaching outward.

E. Return to resting position and repeat 3 to 5 times.

F. On the last repetition, at the top of the arc, place fingertips together and reach for the ceiling. Hold for 10 seconds.

Shoulder Shrugs

fitness trainer helping seated older woman raise her shoulders in a shoulder shrug stretch

A. Again, sitting or standing very straight, lift shoulders up under your ears.

B. Keep ears directly over shoulders.

C. As shoulders lower, reach down gently, pressing shoulders down slightly. You want to feel the muscles on your back, under your arms.

D. Repeat shrug 3 to 5 times.

Shoulder Rolls

fitness trainer guiding a seated older woman to sit up straight

A. Lift shoulders up under ears and then squeeze shoulder blades together as you roll back and down to the starting position. You are rolling your shoulders in a circle.

B. Repeat, rolling the shoulders forward, squeezing the muscles of the chest as your shoulders roll forward and down to starting position.

Reaches and Retraction

seated older woman holding her arms straight out

A. Bring arms out in front like a sleepwalker, keeping shoulders relaxed away from ears but arm about shoulder height.

B. Reach out, separating shoulder blades and squeezing chest muscles slightly.

C. Then, bending your elbows, draw them back as if trying to touch behind your back. Imagine holding a pencil between your shoulder blades and then putting both shoulder blades in your back pockets.

D. Keep the top of shoulders relaxed away from ears. Do not shrug.

fitness trainer helping seated older woman raise her arms straight out behind her

E. Then, for three more repetitions, when elbows are drawn back, straighten arms out behind, reaching for the ceiling.


Side Stretch

seated older woman bending to her right with right arm pointed straight to the ground

A. Begin sitting or standing tall and keep shoulders in line with hips at all times.

B. Bend to the side reaching down toward the floor with right hand.

C. If you are sitting, bring left arm up over your head in arc.

D. Repeat on the opposite side.

E. Hold stretch 5 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times.


fitness trainer helping seated older woman rotate at the waist to her left

A. Begin in starting position, standing or sitting.

B. Rotate at the waist to the right, reaching around the body with the left arm.

C. Turn the head to the right.

D. If standing, keep shoulders, knees, and hips relaxed. They will move slightly as well.

E. Repeat to the left. Hold the stretch 5 to 10 seconds.

Lower Body

Lower body stretches are usually static, meaning that each stretch is maximized and then held for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat each stretch 3 to 5 times.

Hamstring (Back of Thigh) Stretch

seated older woman bending forward at waist with her hands resting on legs just below knees

A. Sit on the edge of a stable chair, on the floor or on the bed.

fitness trainer helping older woman seated on exercise mat to bend forward as she uses an exercise strap wrapped around her feet to stretch her hamstrings

B. Extend one leg (or for more challenge both legs) straight out until knees are as straight as you can achieve. If seated on a chair, heels are on the ground with toes pointing up. If on the floor, legs are extended out in front with knees as straight as possible.

C. Very slowly and gently reach for the toes, hinging from the hips and slightly rounding the back. Keep your eyes on your toes.

D. Keep knees straight and when a moderate stretch is felt, hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

E. If only one leg is stretched, repeat on the other leg.

Quadriceps (Front of Thigh) Stretch—Reclining

fitness trainer helping older woman laying on right side on floor lift and bend left leg back in a quadriceps stretch

A. Lie on your left side on a mat or bed with legs stacked on top of each other.

B. Concentrate on the top (right) leg.

C. Gently bend the knee as close to a 90-degree angle as possible.

D. If no stretch is felt in the front of the thigh as you bend the knee, keep the knee bent and slowly press back until a stretch is felt.

E. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

F. Repeat on the opposite side.

Quadriceps (Front of Thigh) Stretch—Sitting

seated older woman sliding her right leg back with knee close to a 90-degree angle for a quadriceps stretch

A. Move your bottom toward the right side of the chair until your right “cheek” is hanging off the chair.

B. Anchor your weight with your left hand under the left side of the seat of the chair.

C. Slide the right foot back until knee is close to a 90-degree angle.

D. If no stretch is felt in the front of the thigh as you bend the knee, slowly press knee back until a stretch is felt.

E. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

F. Repeat on the opposite side.

Calf (Lower Leg)—Standing

older woman standing behind chair with hands resting on chair back, right leg bent and left leg extended stretched straight out behind her, left foot on floor

A. Stand arm’s-length away from a stable chair or a wall.

B. Hold on to the back of chair or place your hands at shoulder height on the wall.

C. Position the right leg forward with the knee bent but not in front of the ankle.

D. Push the left leg back as far as you can, pressing the left heel to the floor.

E. Gently lean forward, increasing the bend of the right knee until you feel a stretch in the calf of the back leg.

F. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat with the left leg forward.

Ankle Circles

close up of fitness trainer's hand supporting seated older woman's bent leg as she lifts it off the ground

A. Sit tall and lift right foot off the floor, supporting the weight of the leg in hands cupped under the thigh.

B. Draw a large circle with toe to the right 5 times.

C. Reverse and rotate to the left 5 times.

D. Repeat 3 times on each leg.