There are some things that get better with age: Cheddar cheese, cast iron skillets, and especially Jane Fonda. One thing not on the list, though, is our joint health. Seriously, how often have you heard—or maybe you’ve said it yourself—”Ooh, my aching joints!”
That’s because as we age, joint mobility tends to wane—thanks to a combo of nine-to-five desk jobs, lounging on the couch, and poor posture when we use our phones and computers. Joint mobility is our ability to access all the ranges of motion within our joints, explains physical therapist and certified strength and condition specialist Grayson Wickham, founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company.
The consequences of limited joint mobility? Pain, compensating with the wrong muscles and joints to move how you’re trying to move, and even injury. “Around the age of 40, the injury rate starts to increase because at that point we’ve been putting our bodies in—and operating in—sub-optimal positions for four decades,” Wickham says. “That results in tight muscles and joints and means we have less ability to move freely, which really takes a toll on the body.”
Without optimal mobility, he continues, it’s harder to do all sorts of things. “Mobility is what allows us to perform our daily need-to-do tasks like wash the dishes, toss a Frisbee to the dog, exercise without pain, and even get out of bed.” That’s why working on your mobility in your major joints (think: hips, ankles, shoulders, and wrists) is essential to your quality of life as you age. “Adding mobility stretches and exercises into your routine is about getting your full range of motion back in your joints,” Wickham says.
Luckily, it’s never too late to develop a mobility practice that can help prevent injury and pain later in life–and it doesn’t require a huge shift in your routine. “A few minutes a day is all it takes to see massive improvements over time,” he says.
With that in mind, Wickham put together a five-move mobility routine to improve movement and function in your key joints so that you can comfortably perform daily activities and exercise for decades to come. Incorporate these movements into your routine as often as you can, aiming for five or more times per week.
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T-Spine Joint Mobilizations
At first glance, this might look plain ol’ foam rolling. But this exercise is aimed specifically at increasing mobility in your upper spine, all with a massage-like feel. Considering that back pain and arthritis costs Americans more than $200 billion(!) a year, according to a 2014 Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation study, this move could save you money and misery.
How to do it: Grab your handy foam roller and place it behind you, so that your upper back is resting on it. Keep your hands behind your head, as if you were going to do a crunch, or straighten your arms overhead. When you’re ready to begin, engage your core.
The goal is to create movement at each individual level or vertebrae in your thoracic spine, the part that runs from the base of your neck to your abdomen. To do this, bend backward on the foam roller as far as possible while maintaining engagement in your abs. Once you’ve extended as far as possible, squeeze the muscles that are touching the foam roller by trying to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold for five seconds, then return to the start position. Repeat for three reps of five seconds each.
Next, move up on the foam roller about an inch toward your neck and repeat the above sequence. Repeat throughout your entire upper back.
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In addition to being costly, back pain is also common. “Back pain is something 80% of people will experience at some point in their lives,” says Wickham. “But spine circles help you activate and engage all of the muscles that surround your back and torso, which can help you move more freely from side to side.”
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees. Tuck your tailbone and push your spine toward the ceiling, making your back the shape of a Halloween cat’s. As you do this, lengthen your neck so that your ears come down by your biceps.
From here, you’re going to start making circles within this pose. Start by squeezing all of the muscles in your core. Bend over to the left side by squeezing all the muscles on the left side of your body, which will make your body look like a half moon. Hold this for two seconds, then return to your starting cat position. Then move to the right. Activate the muscles on your right side so that you’re bending to the right. Hold this for two seconds, then move back to the starting position.
That’s one full spine circle. Repeat for five reps.
Hip Flexor Stretch: End-Range Isometrics
“When you have limited mobility in your hips, your body will compensate by asking your knees and ankles to move in unsafe ways that can lead to injury over time,” says Wickham. “We are weakest and most injury-prone in our hips’ end-range of motions, but activating the muscles and joints through this stretch helps increase flexibility and strengthen the joint.” The goal with this exercise is to stretch out your hip flexor and then contract the muscles around the hip, which helps increase hip stability.
How to do it: Begin in a half-kneeling position with your right knee up. Engage your abs, then intensify the lunge forward so that you feel the stretch in the front of your left hip. Once you feel the stretch, contract those left hip muscles. To do that, think about dragging your left knee on the mat to get them to activate. Hold for 10 seconds.
Next, relax your hip flexor muscles but stay in the stretch. Rest in this position for a few seconds, then squeeze your glutes for 10 seconds. That’s one rep.
Switch sides, and repeat three times on each leg.
RELATED: How to Stretch Your Hip Flexors
Ankle Stretch: Plantar Flexion Lift Off
“When you don’t have mobility in the ankle, you’ll either not be able to perform certain movements—like squats, lunges, and even walking—or you won’t be able to perform those movements well,” says Wickham. This stretch can help increase the mobility of your ankle, specifically at the front of the joint.
How to do it: Start on your hands and knees, with the tops of your feet in contact with the mat. While keeping your core engaged, press the tops of your feet into the mat as you extend your knees as far as you can. Squeeze your quads at the top of the movement, hold for three seconds, and slowly lower back down to the mat.
You should feel the front of your ankles opening up as you perform this movement. Perform 10 slow, controlled reps on each side.
Shoulder Stretch: End-Range Isometrics
This stretch will help open up the shoulder and chest muscles, Wickham says. As many as 67% of people experience shoulder pain at some point, but Wickham says that improving shoulder mobility can help reduce the risk.
How to do it: Start by lying facedown on a mat. Bring your left arm out to the side at a 90-degree angle from your body with your palm facing down. Place your right hand on the ground, pushing it into the ground and lifting the right side of your body, increasing the stretch in the front of the left shoulder and pec area. Activate the muscles in the front of your left shoulder by thinking about pushing your left arm and hand into the ground. Hold here for 10 seconds.
Then, relax the front of your left shoulder and contract the muscles in the opposite direction. To do this, imagine lifting your left hand and arm off of the ground. It likely will not go anywhere, but as long as you are activating the muscles on the backside of the shoulder, you are doing the movement correctly. Return to start. That’s one rep.
Perform the above sequence three times per shoulder.