I was recently introduced to a man named Robert Morrison. He’s a World War II veteran and a serial entrepreneur with seven businesses to his name—one of which was the Morrison House, a boutique hotel in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. He’s a charming man with a quick wit and a love of fine food. You’re probably wondering what Mr. Morrison has to do with stretching. Well, for one thing, he’s an 89-year-old man—who doesn’t even look like he’s hit his seventies. He’s in great health. And he has somehow managed to downright enjoy exercising all these years.
The secret to his fountain of youth? Stretching.
Recent findings from official studies about stretching are mixed. Some studies suggest that the typical stretches (what we now know as static stretching) we did decades ago before soccer practice may have actually decreased our athletic performance. But stretching the right way increases flexibility, which has a ton of benefits far beyond decreasing injuries. In fact, with the proper methods, stretching increases blood flow and circulation, helping nutrients and oxygen travel through our body faster.
The kind of movement that Morrison practices—the stretching that might yield the same benefits for you as it has for him—is not what you might think. “I don’t think of it as stretching,” he says. “I would use the term exercise.” In fact, when I asked him his favorite stretch, he promptly replied, “The sit-up.” I had to laugh. I had never actually considered it a stretch. Have my definitions of “stretching” been mixed up all this time?
The key is that instead of static stretching, we need to stretch dynamically. The military-style hand-to-toe body bending from elementary school gym class was all wrong. Considered “static” stretches, they’re not actually beneficial until our muscles are actually warm. In fact, they often increase the likelihood of pulling a muscle or causing an injury.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand (or foot), is defined by movement. It warms up your muscles as it stretches them, which is far more beneficial to the body. “I consider it my lifeline to the future,“ Morrison says.
Inspired by his uncle at a young age, Morrison saw discipline as a strategic strength in all things long before he entered the military during WWII. After the war, and into his early twenties, he began to see exercise as something he could genuinely enjoy. When describing his routine, he doesn’t use the term “dynamic,“ but that’s what it is. He stretches while moving, which is the premise of dynamic stretching: warming up one’s muscles before trying to lengthen them. This greatly aids in flexibility as well as circulation—which is ideal when you’re trying to keep in tip-top condition.
Morrison begins every day with yoga or pilates and has done so for many years. According to The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a carefully adapted set of yoga poses can have many benefits: reduce lower-back pain and improve function; reduce stress; help relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia; lower heart rate and blood pressure; improve overall physical fitness, strength, and flexibility; and improve quality of life.
A few sun salutations might be a great way to start a workout. But if full-blown yoga isn’t your thing, keep these tips from the Mayo Clinic in mind when you’re looking to increase your range and flexibility.
Stretching Is Not a Warm-Up
If you want to stretch the “static” way, remember to do so only after you warm up with a low-intensity exercise for five to ten minutes. Our lifestyle editor warms up for her workouts with a one-song dance party (yep, that’s all it takes). Once warm, move slowly. Hold each stretch for thirty to sixty seconds. Breathe deeply. Try incorporating these cardiovascular and stretch combos into your workout routine:
- High Knees: slowly kicking up your knee until your thigh is parallel with the ground
- Butt Kicks: kicking toward your rear with rapid but controlled movements
- Sumo Squats: alternating squatting down and standing up in a slow, rhythmic motion
Symmetry Is Key
Comparing our flexibility to accomplished yogis or dancers isn’t the best (or most realistic) benchmark. Focus on having equal flexibility on each side instead. This is especially important if you’re getting over an injury. For those muscles that you routinely use, make sure to also stretch both sides.
Movement Is Good, Bouncing Is Bad
As exhibited in the exercise videos we linked to above, make sure you move in a fluid movement as you stretch. Though bouncing might be fun (and for me, increase that delicious “burning” sensation), it can increase the risk of injury.
Pain Does Not Mean Gain
Tension is good; pain, not so much. Stretching might burn, but it should never hurt. If you find yourself in pain, you should listen to your body and back off. In fact, depending on your history, you might need to be especially mindful of how you stretch. For instance, if you have a chronic condition or an injury, consider talking to a physical therapist who can help you work with your current dilemmas. Sometimes stretching can cause even further harm to problem areas. If something hurts, stretching out without professional guidance could be the worst thing you can do.
Morrison commits to his dynamic stretching routine for at least an hour every single day. While our schedules might not have that kind of bandwidth, it is critical to be consistent and have an established routine. It should become a habit, as our muscles can easily forget their ability to be flexible. After all, being in top shape at 89 years old didn’t happen overnight. As Morrison shares, he has been exercising this way for most of his adult life. And he plans on exercising much, much longer. “I want to live to see my great-great-grandchild!” he says.
His advice to staying fit? “You have to do something two to three months before it becomes a habit,” he says. “My exercise is just second nature to me now.”
Anyone in exemplary health is likely to be an amalgam of good practices, genes, and dedication, but Morrison is certainly a testament to the benefits of dynamic stretching. Start incorporating some of these stretching basics into your health routine, and you, too, could defy the years.