Stretching Improves Ability to Walk in the Elderly

Old age leads to walking difficulty, reduces mobility and increases the tendency to fall while walking. The most important factor for this seems to be the contractures at the hip joints and tilt in the pelvis. The current study was performed in people around 65 years old. It showed that a program of stretching exercises performed three times a week for four weeks improved the range of movements at the hip and ankle joints. It also improved stability while standing as well as walking speed.

Old age is marked by physical changes that limit movement. Loss of muscle strength and contractures are responsible for a decreased range of movements at the joints. Walking is particularly affected by limitation to hip extension, decrease in stride distance and pelvic tilt. An abnormal gait can lead to more falls. Previous studies have found the effect of strengthening muscles on improving walking in older people. This study concentrated on finding the effect of stretching the muscles on the gait. It was aimed at determining whether a four-week supervised stretching program for the lower limbs altered the walking parameters that were related to the risk of a fall.

* The experimental group consisted of 12 participants while the control group had eight participants. All the participants were over 65 years of age.
* The experimental group attended 12 sessions of stretching exercises: three sessions per week for four weeks. The control group did not perform any specific activity in this period.
* The walking performances of all the participants were videotaped and digitalized, and different aspects of gait like gait cycle duration, step length, gait velocity, and range of movement of hip and knee joints were measured.
* The values of these parameters were compared between those obtained at the beginning and at the end of the study in both groups.

* The range of movements increased in the experimental group. For example, extension at hip improved from 73° before the beginning of exercises to 91.9° at the end of four weeks. The corresponding values for the control group were 67.5° and 67.9°, respectively. This indicated no improvement in the control group.
* Similarly, amplitude of plantar flexion at the ankle joint improved from 39.6° at the beginning to 48.7°at the end of four weeks for the experimental group. The corresponding values for the control group were 43.0° and 42.7° respectively.
* Participants from the experimental group also walked with greater step length and higher velocity after the stretching exercises.
* The participants from the control group showed no changes in step length and velocity at the end of the four-week period.

The participants were around 65 years old while gait problems and contracture of muscles are more severe in an older population. It was found that because the control group did not undertake any physical activity, they might be less motivated. The experimental group might be more motivated to perform better, and this psychological factor could have contributed to the improvement noticed in this group. More research, including older people, which tests various walking speeds might be useful.

Previous studies investigated the effect of exercise aimed at improving muscle strength in older people. This study showed that exercises aimed at stretching the muscles reduced tightness of the tissues surrounding the hip and pelvis and improved the range of movements. Stretching also improved step length and velocity, which assumed values that resembled those generally found in younger adults. At least in this specific case, the changes induced by old age seem to be reversible. A stiff gait not only impedes motion and reduces mobility, but also promotes falls. Therefore, stretching exercises of the pelvis and lower limbs might be beneficial for the older population.

For More Information:
Stretching Exercise Program Improves Gait in the Elderly
Publication Journal: Gerontology, August 2009
By Fabiano Cristopoliski; José Angelo Barela; Federal University of Paraná, Curitiba,Brazil and State University of São Paulo, Rio Claro, Brazil

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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