9 Stretching Exercises for Seniors, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of stretching exercises for seniors that can improve flexibility and balance, and discover which moves PTs recommend.

Published Date: Jun 10, 2024

9 Stretching Exercises for Seniors, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of stretching exercises for seniors that can improve flexibility and balance, and discover which moves PTs recommend.

Published Date: Jun 10, 2024

9 Stretching Exercises for Seniors, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of stretching exercises for seniors that can improve flexibility and balance, and discover which moves PTs recommend.

Published Date: Jun 10, 2024

9 Stretching Exercises for Seniors, Recommended by Physical Therapists

Learn about the importance of stretching exercises for seniors that can improve flexibility and balance, and discover which moves PTs recommend.

Published Date: Jun 10, 2024
Table of Contents

One of the most frustrating parts of aging can be losing the ability to do certain things you enjoy, like running around after grandkids or getting up off the floor unassisted. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Stretching exercises designed specifically for seniors are essential to maintaining flexibility — and quality of life. 

The more flexible you are as you age, the easier it will be to remain engaged in a variety of activities as you get older, like turning your head while driving, bending down to unload the dishwasher, lifting bags of mulch for your garden, or throwing a frisbee. 

Flexibility refers to a joint’s ability to move through its full range of motion without pain or restriction. It’s influenced by the mobility of soft tissues surrounding the joint, such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, and skin. Flexibility is essential if you want to continue to do the activities you enjoy and remain independent for longer.

As you age, natural changes happen in your joints and muscles that tend to make joints a little stiffer and muscles a little less pliable,” explains Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “If you start moving less as a result, your flexibility and mobility will also start to decrease. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it.’” 

But you can stay limber and more active by regularly doing stretching exercises for seniors, like the ones below that are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Vinci is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in orthopedics, persistent pain, and mindfulness based stress reduction.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

What Are Stretching Exercises?

Stretching exercises are exercises intended to lengthen muscles and tendons and increase the range of motion of joints so you can move more easily. Classic stretching exercises, called static stretches, involve holding a position for a longer period of time, usually about 30 seconds. Dynamic stretches involve movement instead of holding the stretch.

“There are various ways to stretch,” says Dr. Vinci. “Sit-to-stand exercises or squats, for example, are strengthening exercises, but they’re also good for dynamic stretching and mobility.”

Even daily activities like reaching overhead to put towels away on a high shelf, twisting to grab something behind you, and walking could be considered stretching exercises because these movements help decrease stiffness and increase range of motion. “If you're not bending over to pick something up off the floor, you're missing an opportunity to stretch,” says Dr. Vinci.

9 Stretching Exercises for Seniors

To loosen up and reduce stiffness throughout the body, you can do the below stretches any time of the day and as often as you like. Most of the stretches are static and should be held for 10 to 30 seconds and repeated three or four times. For the dynamic stretches, hold them for only three to five seconds and repeat them five to 10 times. Practice these stretches at least three times a week to improve your flexibility.

To make stretching more comfortable, you can hold on to something when doing standing stretches that require balance and use pillows for support when lying on the floor. While you don’t have to warm up before stretching, a brief walk or a few minutes of dynamic stretching before static stretching can help if you’re feeling particularly stiff.

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1. Seated Trap Stretch

1. Seated Trap Stretch

This move stretches the muscles on the sides of the neck and upper shoulders, common areas for tension that can result in pain. “As you age, your spine tends to round forward, and, as a result, these muscles end up doing more work to support your head and neck,” says Dr. Vinci.

How to do it:

  • Sit upright with your arms at your sides.

  • To stretch the right side of your neck, hold the side of the chair with your right hand and tilt your head to the left side like you’re dropping your left ear to listen to the front of your underarm. 

  • Keep your shoulders relaxed as you hold the stretch. 

  • Then lift your head up to return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

2. Seated Pec Stretch

2. Seated Pec Stretch

This stretch counteracts the hunching we do over computers, phones, steering wheels, and kitchen sinks all day long. It opens up the chest and front of the shoulders, making it easier to maintain good posture. Lengthening these muscles can also improve your breathing mechanics so you can take deeper breaths and bring much needed oxygen-rich blood to your tight muscles.

How to do it:

  • Sit comfortably toward the front of a chair.

  • Depending on the chair you’re using, use your target side arm to hold on to the side of the seat or the arm of the chair or hook your forearm over the back of the chair if it’s comfortable. Reposition yourself in the chair as needed.

  • Now, rotate your upper body away from your arm to stretch your chest. 

  • Hold this position and then move your upper body back to relax out of the stretch.

3. Standing Child’s Pose

3. Standing Child’s Pose

This variation of the popular yoga pose is easier on your knees and doesn’t require you to get down on the floor. It’s a great whole-body stretch.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your hands resting on a sturdy surface, like a countertop or table.

  • Now, take a few steps back as you lower your chest towards the floor, hinging at your hips.

  • Keep your arms straight and your head will come between your arms. Hold this stretch as you focus on relaxing your back and core muscles. 

  • Then walk your feet forward and come back into a standing position.

4. Standing Calf Stretch

4. Standing Calf Stretch

Tight calf muscles can contribute to injuries and affect your walking gait, causing you to take shorter steps and shuffle which can increase your risk of tripping. Keeping these muscles loose will increase range of motion at your foot and ankle, allowing you to take a full stride and walk faster.

How to do it:

  • Start by standing, facing a wall with the palms of your hands flat on the wall.

  • Now, take a good step back with your targeted leg. 

  • Pressing your back heel down towards the floor, move your hips and front knee towards the wall. Your back leg should remain mostly straight during this stretch. 

  • Make sure that your feet are facing straight forward as you hold this stretch.

5. Seated Hip Flexor Stretch

5. Seated Hip Flexor Stretch

This move lengthens the hip flexor muscles at the front of the hip and top of the thigh, which often shorten and get tight from too much sitting. When these muscles are tight, it puts more stress on the low back and can affect your stride when walking.

How to do it:

  • Start by sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.

  • Now, drop one leg off the side of the chair.

  • Scoot toward that side of the chair, as needed.

  • Reach your leg back as far as you can while keeping your knee and toes facing forward.

  • Stay upright and continue to reach your leg back as you hold the stretch.

  • Return to the starting position.

6. Seated Hamstring Stretch

6. Seated Hamstring Stretch

There are many ways to stretch the hamstrings in the back of your thighs, but this is one of the most comfortable variations that helps keep these muscles flexible so you can avoid lower back pain.  

How to do it:

  • Sit at the edge of a chair and straighten one leg out in front of you while resting your heel on the floor.

  • Then, hinge at your hips to lean your chest towards the floor and hold. 

  • Now, return to the starting position.

7. Knee Rocking Exercise

7. Knee Rocking Exercise

This dynamic stretch improves your ability to rotate through your hips, lower back, and upper back, making reaching for something behind you or putting on your seatbelt easier. Keeping these muscles loose may also improve your game if you play golf, tennis, or pickleball.

How to do it:

  • On a yoga mat, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. 

  • Keep your knees together as you allow your knees to rock to one side, reaching towards the floor.

  • Try to keep your shoulders and your arms against the floor as your knees rotate. 

  • Then, return your knees to the center before rocking your knees to the opposite side.

8. Bridge

8. Bridge

This dynamic stretch does double duty — it stretches the hip flexors at the top of your thighs and strengthens your glute and core muscles. It also stretches your chest, abdomen, and shoulders and helps maintain mobility in your spine. If lying flat on the floor is uncomfortable for you, you can easily perform this on a bed or couch.

How to do it:

  • On a yoga mat, lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.

  • Push through your feet to raise your hips off the floor. Focus on squeezing your butt muscles as you hold this position. 

  • Relax your hips back to the floor.

9. Seated Cat Cow

9. Seated Cat Cow

This dynamic move is typically done on the floor in yoga classes, but it's also effective when seated. The rounding and arching motions stretch all the muscles along your spine from your neck down to your hips and pelvis to maintain a full range of motion in your back.

How to do it:

  • Sit in a chair with your hands clasped behind your head.

  • Bend your chest and head towards your thighs to round your back. Focus on your breath as you hold this position.

  • Then, extend your shoulders and head towards the top of the chair to arch your back. Remember to relax your breathing as you hold.

  • Now, come back to sitting.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Benefits of Stretching Exercises for Seniors

When you think about stretching, one of the most common images that comes to mind is being able to touch your toes. While increased flexibility may be the best-known benefit, there are a host of other benefits that stretching has to offer that can improve the quality of your life as you age.

  • Less stiffness. Even simple activities like getting up from a low couch, putting on socks, or clasping a bra can become difficult when muscles are tight. "You can make these tasks easier by adjusting your body position or finding a workaround, but overtime you may end up restricting your activity further and miss an opportunity to move fully,” points out Dr. Vinci. Stretching exercises will reduce stiffness, so you don’t have to struggle to do these and other activities.

  • More movement. Along with flexibility, stretching exercises improve mobility. “You’ll feel less resistance as you move because your muscles and joints can move more easily through their range of motion,” says Dr. Vinci. When activity feels easier, you’re likely to be more active, which offers additional benefits.

  • Increased steadiness on your feet. Leg stretches for flexibility have been found to improve balance and reduce your risk of falling, according to a study in the International Journal of Health Sciences. “When you move more freely and easily, you're better able to react more quickly and catch your balance if you trip or something catches you off guard,” says Dr. Vinci.

  • Less pain. If your muscles are tight, you may feel more soreness or even pain after a lot of activity, like cleaning your house or going for a long hike. But when muscles are flexible, and joints move through a full range of motion, forces are better distributed throughout the body, so one area doesn’t have to do more work and risk becoming irritated. Along with preventing pain, stretching exercises can help you manage pain by increasing your pain tolerance, according to a 2020 pilot study in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain. Stretching also increases blood flow and circulation, which can reduce inflammation, which contributes to pain.

  • Reduced risk of injury. When you’re more flexible, your body mechanics improve, allowing you to move more effectively and safely. For example, if your legs and hips are tight, it’s difficult to get into a good position to lift something off the floor, which could cause you to strain your back. “When you can use your body more optimally, it’s safer and more comfortable, and you’ll feel less achy afterward,” says Dr. Vinci.

  • Improved strength. Some dynamic stretches involve strength exercises like squats or bridges, so it’s not surprising that they also build strength. However, a 2023 study in the journal Sports Medicine found that even static stretching can improve muscle strength and power along with flexibility, especially in older adults. “When you’re able to use a muscle through a bigger range of motion, it can get stronger,” says Dr. Vinci.

  • Greater muscle relaxation. Stretching releases tension and stress that often builds during the day. Pairing your stretches with deep, slow breathing can further enhance relaxation, which can be particularly helpful if you have chronic pain.

The Exercises Seniors Need

Stretching exercises are essential to maintaining or regaining flexibility and mobility, but they’re not the only type of exercise you need to stay strong, sharp, fit, and active as you age. To do that, you want a well-rounded exercise program that includes weight-bearing exercises, aerobic exercise, resistance training, and balance training.

If you’re worried about trying to fit all of that into an already-busy schedule, don’t panic. Many exercises overlap into multiple groups, so staying active is more manageable than it may seem. For example, squats and bridges can provide both flexibility and strength benefits. Walking is both a weight-bearing and aerobic exercise and helps with flexibility. “When you walk faster, you take a longer stride, which is more range of motion for your hips, and your muscles are stretching dynamically,” says Dr. Vinci. Even short bouts of exercise, what we here at Hinge Health call movement snacks, provide benefits. 

If you need help getting started, a physical therapist can help you develop a well-rounded exercise program that meets your unique needs and fits your lifestyle. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

PT Tip: Go for the Ahhh, Not the Ouch

Stretching is not a ‘no-pain, no-gain’ phenomenon,” says Dr. Vinci. “You don’t have to push into a deep, deep stretch or feel pain or discomfort for it to be beneficial.” You want to stretch only to the point of slight discomfort or tension. Stretching shouldn’t be painful, and you shouldn’t be straining.

To ensure that you’re not overdoing it, look for these cues, says Dr. Vinci. Can you breathe smoothly? Can you relax your face? If the answers are no, then it’s a little too much, and you should back off a bit. Also, stretch only in a comfortable range of motion, even if it’s small. “Don't underestimate the value of small movements,” says Dr. Vinci. “It’s a starting place, and over time, you will gradually notice that you can go further.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Benefits of Physical Activity. (2023, August 1). Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm

  2. Reddy, R. S., & Alahmari, K. A. (2016). Effect of Lower Extremity Stretching Exercises on Balance in Geriatric Population. International Journal of Health Sciences, 10(3), 389–395. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003582 

  3. Larouche, M.-C., Samuel Camiré Bernier, Racine, R., Collin, O., Mikaël Desmons, Mailloux, C., & Massé-Alarie, H. (2020). Stretch-induced hypoalgesia: a pilot study. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 20(4), 837-845. doi:10.1515/sjpain-2020-0018

  4. Arntz, F., Markov, A., Behm, D.G., Behrens, M., Negra, Y., Nakamura, M., Moran, J., & Chaabene, H. (2023). Chronic Effects of Static Stretching Exercises on Muscle Strength and Power in Healthy Individuals Across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review with Multi-level Meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 53(3), 723-745. doi:10.1007/s40279-022-01806-9