Remember when you could touch your toes? It’s worth working toward again: Flexibility, particularly as you age, can help lessen joint stiffness and pain. It also helps you maintain balance and prevent bone-breaking falls.
According to a 2013 study at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala., this is easier than many anticipate. In a small study of 12 participants, researchers found that just 10 minutes of stretching in saunas that use a type of infrared heat called “far-infrared” increased flexibility by 2.4 times after doing the same stretching routine in a typical training room.
“The warmer the muscles and connective tissues, such as tendons, the less ‘friction’ or resistance to movement they have,” says lead researcher Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at AU.
Why Infrared Heat Works
Heat increases blood flow to the muscles and connective tissues, which, in turn, increases their elasticity. This makes for greater flexibility, specifically in the stretch and length of muscles and ligaments. But as the Auburn study shows, infrared heat allows for the most significant amount of flexibility.
“Heat created by an active warm-up and from passive heat, such as moist heating pads, makes stretching and increasing range of motion more effective,” says Olson. “But these types of heat do not penetrate as deeply into the layers of the muscles as far-infrared heat does.”
Far-infrared heat warms the core of the body without warming the surrounding air, preferable for people who can’t tolerate heat. Conventional saunas typically use heated rocks, causing the air to get much warmer — about 180 to 220 F compared to 100 to 125 F in a far-infrared sauna.
No infrared sauna in your house? Not to worry. Here are tips for maintaining your flexibility, both with or without a sauna:
- Try hot yoga. Bikram-based yoga is done in a room heated to 105 F, with 40 percent humidity. Like far-infrared heat, the heat in hot yoga will enable further stretching; however, it does not last as long and is less comfortable. Check with your doctor before starting hot yoga.
- Warm up, then stretch. Even if you don’t have a sauna, a trainer or a yoga class to go to, you can stretch. Just don’t stretch cold muscles. Warm up by walking quickly or slowly jogging for five minutes. Then, thoroughly stretch by using slow movements like arm circles and hip rotations.
- Find a sauna near you. “Many gyms, day spas and even tanning salons have saunas that use infrared wave technology,” says Olson. Call ahead to double check if the location offers far-infrared heat. If you can’t find a far-infrared sauna, conventional saunas will also facilitate stretching, though not as effectively.
- Utilize moist heat. Taking advantage of moist heat from a shower or using a moist heating pad may also make your stretching routine more effective. Try going through a series of range-of-motion stretches, starting with your arms and moving down to your feet and ankles. (When stretching in a warm shower or bathtub, make sure you have good balance on a rubber mat to prevent accidents.)
- Work with a physical therapist or trainer. He can customize a stretching program for you. To find a physical therapist, ask your doctor for a referral. You can also use the ‘Find a PT’ tool on the American Physical Therapy Association’s website, which searches a national database of therapists.