Like many others, I spent a lot of time at home during the pandemic, not exercising as much as I did when visiting public venues such as swimming pools, roller skating rinks and simply walking in public spaces. At age 67 years, the pandemic gave me an extra push to retire from clinical practice . This has resulted in an even more sedentary lifestyle. When doing clinical work- I seldom sat down-which was fortunate since my brain was most creative when MOVING... But as I became the retired RecyclingOT, during the pandemic 2020-2021 years, reduced exercise and fresh air led to
- mildly decreased shoulder range-of-motion,
- knee and back pain,
- decreased upper extremity strength and;
- overall reduced flexibility and endurance
I was shadow of my former, super-active self, who hiked down and up the Grand Canyon merely 3 years ago!
I experienced my first ever physical therapy assessment last week, which was cool because I have worked with many PT's over the past 40 years. We agreed that I needed to be stronger in order to gain function, decrease pain and return to my active lifestyle as best as possible.
I am sharing my personal story and nothing I write should be construed as advice, nor even correct. My expertise is in the areas of child development, developmental disabilities and sensory processing disorders. Check out my books!
Strengthening My Upper Extremities
My 67 year old shoulder musculature is weak and I can only hang from a branch for 2 seconds while using both hands. Its recommended to do this "dead hang" with the shoulder blades down and the chest open to engage the back muscles and not dislocate your shoulders.
So don't do what I did, which is risk injury. However, I hope that I will eventually be able to hang with better form, with my hands wide apart and for longer than 2 seconds. I couldn't resist trying out that nice tree.....
Climbing a tree provides a fun and functional activity that strengthens the upper extremities. It can involve simply climbing onto a low lying branch to wait for hubby to return from a store or climbing, leafy heights as I did as a child to hide from and then spook my parents.
Of course, weight bearing on forearms or hands is a basic strengthening technique therapists use to treat babies and bigger folks of all ages. I am too weak to do any type of push up (and it causes pain) but I try to weight bear briefly while stretching or leaning against natural objects such as trees or rocks. I also like the sensory stimulation provided by head inversion , shown above at a beach.
Stretching arms and legs at the same time with a modified "bear walk" is pretty low stress for me. I rock in place and then move on to finding other stretching structures.
I discovered that my knees feel best when I keep my legs straight as much as possible. Wearing the knee sleeve seems to help stabilize and protect my joint a bit, but my PT says to focus on strengthening, not bracing.
Stretching My Hamstrings
Stretching my hamstrings helps to decrease knee pain, so I try to remember to do it as often as possible. Of course, it is more fun when stretching in pretty outdoor spaces during walks as shown below in Lowell, Massachusetts. .... The hamstrings muscle group is located in the back of your thigh.
Stretching My Hip Extensors
I love finding a bar to hold onto while flexing my ankles to point my toes to the sky- so that the hamstrings get a nice, slow stretch. The "truck stretch" (shown below) performed after camping for 3 nights and cycling 4 days helped stretch not only my hamstrings but loosen the hip flexors. Hip flexors tighten up when we sit too much. All I know is that I crave hip stretching....
Hubby stretches in a more traditional way, using a big rock next to a view provided by Mother Nature. We walked about 2 miles around Flax Pond on Cape Cod, stopping frequently to stretch and enjoy the beauty.
Squatting is another way to stretch hip and back muscles. But do it very carefully with knees apart as much as possible so that the thigh muscles are doing all the work. I love how it relaxes my back muscles and if I'm on a clean surface, I might go right into the Child's pose...., too.
I go into a squat very slowly, leaning my trunk forward with hands reaching the floor avoiding stress on my knees. I straighten my knees before slowing extending my spine to stand.
After a lifetime of hearing " bend your knees, save your back.... I'm working on saving my knees!
Stretching My Trunk and Back
My upper extremities are too weak to do the bridge pose with my palms on the ground behind my head (looking like a bridge). But I am still able to extend my back by grasping my ankles and then transition into a shoulder stand. This is a great stretch to counterbalance my daily sitting. The Bow pose is also great for back extension and I can still rock on my tummy like a rocking horse in this position.
Of course, stretching upper extremity extensors, back and trunk muscles is important, too .... Its pretty simple and feels great!
Balance Activities that Strengthen Core and leg Muscles
Standing on one leg requires good strength which is why I can only do it for 4-5 seconds with a lot of wobbling. At my age of 67 years, I should be able to do this for 30 seconds!
Fortunately, it is easy to practice in any location including while waiting on line at the supermarket. If possible, I like to stabilize my body by holding onto a branch and then briefly letting go- gradually increasing the time I can let go without getting all wobbly or falling...
Other activities to improve strength and balance include walking over natural balance beams such as shown below.
Climbing over structures:
I like to hold the position shown below-with one leg extended back and the opposite side arm extended forward. The picture below demonstrates me doing this while using a post to balance myself. It's a great stretch and balance exercise! The photo was taken while hiking the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
I like working on my balance while on a moored sailboat..... If you have great balance maybe you can do this on one leg or while the boat is moving, but I can't do either at this time!
When I first injured my left shoulder about 10 years ago (from lifting weights incorrectly at the Y), I was unable to touch my hands together behind my back and it was painful to dress. I worked with a myofascial release therapist who used deep pressure on the muscle and i felt better after only 4 session. My husband observed and learned how to apply deep pressure on my tight muscles. This was especially important because during the summer of 2020 I fell off my bicycle and injured my right shoulder. So both shoulders were achy and I had no plans to see a therapist during the pandemic! However, I found some relief by pressing a spikey ball under my scapula while leaning against a wall or on the floor. In addition, since I love trees- I could apply deep pressure where I needed it using protruding bark. This works great and my new PT never heard of doing such a thing!!!
I hope that sharing my experiences is helpful regardless of your age. But, I'm finding that even the most fit occupational therapist eventually needs to seek help to stay strong, flexible, minimize pain and enjoy life's natural wonders.
Maybe I will even get back onto a trapeze!!!
A few other health tips for Seniors