Our skin, tendons and ligaments are commonly referred to as connective tissue. Like their name implies – they keep our body connected - tendons connect muscles to bone, ligaments connect bones to bone, and our skin keeps the entire packaged wrapped up, so to speak.
Connective tissues are a lot like an elastic band. When new (or when we’re younger), they are easily stretched without damage and retain their original shape. But after time, you’ll notice that an elastic band doesn’t stretch as easily, nor does it go back to its original shape. And if you look closely, you may notice it’s drier and even has little cracks in it. Eventually, you’ll stretch that elastic band and it will snap.
The same goes for our connective tissues. They become drier, less elastic, and more prone to injury or “snapping” as we age. You’ll notice this as overall flexibility decreases, joint pains increase (some joint pain is actually caused by loose ligaments) and drier, more wrinkly and looser skin.
Loss of flexibility and stiffness may be some of the most apparent effects of aging. However, ongoing research also shows that many age-related changes are due in large part to disuse. In other words, being sedentary will accelerate the aging process; and at the same time, exercise will slow it – including declines in flexibility.
Men are especially prone to these connective tissue changes. If you stop and listen, you’ll probably hear a lot more men talking about their decreased flexibility than women!
So what’s a guy to do? While we can’t stop the clock, fortunately there are many things that slow it down.
Not exactly the fountain of youth, it's darn close especially when a person exercises on an ongoing basis. Like most conditions, it’s a lot easier to prevent age-related decline than to try and reverse it. But even if you’re someone who’s not been diligent about exercise, studies do show it can reverse many age-related changes including decreased flexibility.
One word of caution though, exercise needs to be approached cautiously with long warm ups, long cool downs and adequate recovery in order to prevent injury if you’ve been sedentary. Start slow and gradually increase. Remember the 10% rule which says not to increase your mileage, time spent exercising, or even how much weight you lift, by more than 10% each week. Slow and steady wins the race, and keeps you out of the doctor's office!
And while high intensity training is all the rage these days (and for good reason), don’t head over to the cross fit gym or local track to run sprints just yet – get yourself back into good condition with some decent cardio and strength training. Hold off on the more eccentric movements that the more intense gym regimens try to push –for now.
By now you’ve long heard the importance of hydration. But did you know the health of your connective tissue is highly dependent on water? Here’s why – cartilage, tendons and ligaments have an inherently very poor blood supply.
Connective tissues are different from other tissues in our bodies that get a constant, rich supply of blood (and nutrients, including water) delivered to them.
Instead, connective tissues are dependent on the fluid in the joints that bathe them for nutrient delivery and removal.
Additionally, the structure of connective tissue is similar to a sponge – its designed to attract and hold on to water.
When connective tissue is well hydrated, it stays refreshed and elastic. When deprived of fluids, they are like any thing else that depends on water – they dry out, shrink and crack. Keeping up on overall hydration will keep your connective tissues healthier over time. Do your best to avoid dehydration!
One reason why exercise is so important for connective tissues are the compressive effects that literally squeeze fluid in and out of the muscles, and into the connective tissues in our joints (cartilage & ligaments). When you bear weight on a joint, this increases the pressure inside, and pushes that synovial (joint) fluid into the cartilage to 'feed' it.
Think of the compression of muscles and joints on connective tissues like the contraction of the heart to deliver blood around the body – instead the muscles and your body weight push fluid in and out of the connective tissues.
Like exercise, but different!
A person can exercise all the time yet be very stiff. You’ve seen these people before - they’re lifting huge amounts of weight but can’t bend over to tie a shoe. Or they’re way out on the trail deep into a long, shuffling run and you can tell just by looking at them how stiff they are. Fit, yet stiff!
This is why you’ve got to incorporate focused stretching into your fitness routine. And by focused I mean holding stretches for a minute or longer. The ol’ 10-second stretch isn’t going to do you a bit of good, and certainly won’t contribute to long-term flexibility.
In fact, rapid fire, short little stretches like those might even tighten your muscles. When a muscle is stretched initially, it wants to react by shortening. This is how your reflexes work – when the doctor taps your patellar tendon (on your knee) with the little hammer, it ever so slightly stretches your quadriceps muscles. In turn, your body reflexively extends your hamstrings to shorten the quads (and you kick your lower leg out to do this). Here’s more info on stretching before and after workouts.
Holding stretches for a minute or so sends a different signal to the brain – think of it as a more permanent message to extend the muscles. But more importantly, stretching those connective tissues squeezes them and encourages the movement of fluid in and out like we just talked about. By holding stretches longer, and doing it repeatedly (at least 3 times a week), you can condition your connective tissues to be more flexible.
And just like strength training or any form of exercise, you’ve got to keep up with it to realize the benefits. You’d never run 3 miles and call it good for an upcoming marathon would you? Would you?? Same with stretching – it needs to be ongoing for your connective tissues to benefit over time.
Elasticity is one of those health-related concepts that like many others, abides by the “use it or lose it” paradigm. You’re not going to stay flexible if you don’t continuously stretch.
And yes, I hear you. You’re already busy working out and you don’t have time. Here’s a few places you can work it into your schedule:
If you do three focused stretching sessions a week I can promise you’ll have less muscle tension, your workouts will go smoother, you’ll have fewer aches and pains and probably fewer injuries over time!
Remember - it's all about consistency. Frequent sessions will add up over time and transform your tissues and how your body feels. But you've got to do it repeatedly!
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