RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DON GONYEA, host:
Elite athletes all use stretching exercises as part of their training, but these exercises are important for amateurs too. Some exercise therapists in New York City have adapted the flexibility techniques they've used to train Olympic class runners to help older people become more agile. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY reporting:
Retired investment banker Albert Gordon knows he's nowhere close to being an Olympic athlete, but he is finding that a form of stretching called active isolated stretching, which helps some elite runners perform better, seems to work for him too. In one stretch, he lies on his back, pulling his leg up towards his chest in steady repetitions.
Mr. ALBERT GORDON (Retired Investment Banker): Yeah, I sure can feel that. It's great.. See, I have a very serious physical impairment, and that's called being 70 years old, and it's incurable. And so this is the only medicine I know.
AUBREY: It's gentle exercise, made up of very fluid stretches that are held for just a second or two. Gordon says it's a far cry from what he was trying to pull off a few years ago when he hired aggressive personal trainers to push him hard.
Mr. GORDON: I was egging them on. So I'd come out a beaten puppy after every session, but, you know, I had proven to myself I could take it.
AUBREY: When he ended up too stiff to walk and started with circulation problems, his heart doctor at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital sent him to see Jim Wharton, an exercise physiologist and former running coach to Olympic athletes who runs a clinic.
Mr. JIM WHARTON (Exercise Physiologist): Flexibility is not as age-related as we used to think it was. It was always that excuse, well, I've got a little older now so I'm shuffling. Well, actually what it is is it's just learning the right things to do to maintain range of motion, just like we would maintain the house before it deteriorates, or the car.
AUBREY: Wharton says to maintain range of motion, just the ability to move fully and easily through daily life, you need good circulation. Blood carries the oxygen to the muscles, enabling them to work well. And in order to optimize blood flow, you've got to move. There's nothing new about this concept. But what Wharton is teaching that's different is his preferred method for warming muscles up.
The traditional way of stretching is the idea that you bend over to touch your toes and keep holding even when it's uncomfortable. Wharton demonstrates.
Mr. WHARTON: But what I'm feeling is when I lean over, I feel it in the back of the leg, behind the knee, down into the calf. As I lean forward a little bit more, I feel it up into the back.
AUBREY: Pushing further and holding longer is intense, but Wharton argues it's the wrong way to go. He says that burn felt during intense stretches brings on something called the myotatic, or stretch reflex, forcing muscles to contract or tighten as a sort of defense mechanism. It's the exact opposite of what we want. Wharton says that's what's happening to his legs now.
Mr. WHARTON: As I go into it a little deeper it tightens more. Whereas if I stop and release out of it, it's like, whoo, wow, that feels better. That's because I took it out of the force. So this is the hard mental image to change. We feel the stretch when we get into the static position. But in reality, we really don't want to feel the stretch. We don't want to force the muscle into a position where we feel the tension. We want to be just outside of that border where we're actually pumping blood into the muscle by moving it while it's in a relaxed state.
AUBREY: What this looks like in action is more graceful movement than actual stretch.
Mr. TOM NOHILLY (AI Stretch Trainer): Now, are you feeling that in your back, Albert?
Mr. GORDON: Yes. And also especially in the hips.
AUBREY: 70-year old Al Gordon is on the table in the Wharton Clinic with trainer Tom Nohilly, practicing a set of active isolated stretches he does at home.
Mr. NOHILLY: Using his abdominal muscles to do the work, then just exhaling and coming forward, and I'm giving him gentle assistance as he gets into that lengthened position where that muscle is stretching.
AUBREY: Never holding more than two seconds, and never pushing far beyond the point of resistance. Nohilly says what ultimately brings the flexibility is the repetition.
Mr. NOHILLY: It's like any other learning curve, you know? And the muscles are learning. They're learning to do something new.
AUBREY: The system of active isolated stretching is not new. Nurses in England used the same fundamentals to rehabilitate soldiers during the Second World War. And, in the 1950s, exercise physiologists at the University of Illinois studied several variations of the technique and began using it in sports medicine.
There's no evidence-based research to suggest its better than other kinds of stretching, or more beneficial, but it seems to be catching on, mostly because most of the people who try AI stretching says it makes them feel better. For Al Gordon, he says it's helping him meet his top goal.
Mr. AL GORDON (AI Stretch Trainee): I want to stay upright, and I sure don't want to look like the other men in the gym or in the men's locker room.
AUBREY: At least, he says, the ones his age. At 70, he's got the range of motion that makes daily movement easy and long walks enjoyable.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
DON GONYEA, host:
Send questions about stretching to exercise physiologist Jim Wharton at npr.org/yourhealth.