There are many things you can do to avoid a return trip to the hospital, and it's not a stretch to say stretching is one of them.

In her September column aimed at consumers, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, director of the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), cites a study that found that one out of every five hospital patients covered by Medicare is readmitted to the hospital within 30 days of being released.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, also found that 52 percent of patients discharged after a surgical procedure were either rehospitalized or died within a year of being discharged.

Most of the readmissions or deaths were because the patients were chronically ill or didn't follow their doctor's instructions about their medications. But the AHRQ notes that exercise is one of the things discharged patients need to do to make themselves healthier after returning home.

The type of exercise you should do depends on the type of treatment or surgery you had and your overall health. For example, those with knee and hip replacements must follow a strict and arduous exercise regimen to rehabilitate and strengthen muscles to make the most of their new joints. Those recovering from cardiovascular surgery may be instructed to do light aerobic exercises to strengthen their heart.

But almost all patients can benefit from informal stretching and flexibility exercises, especially those not ready or able to undertake rigorous physical activity. While many people think stretching is nothing more than something they do almost instinctively when they wake up, it can be a vital part of a daily exercise and wellness program, especially for those recovering from surgery. Health experts say gentle flexibility exercises, such as tai chi, yoga and stretching, can be beneficial, especially for older adults. Stretching exercises often can be done at home.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons says stretching can improve freedom of movement in your arms, shoulders and neck, making everyday activities easier and less painful. The National Institutes of Health says stretching helps older people improve flexibility and balance and can reduce the risk of falls, a common reason older patients are readmitted to the hospital. The exercises also can help ease anxiety and depression, two conditions that affect many post-surgical patients.

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The National Institutes of Health offers some stretching and flexibility exercises for seniors at bit.ly/flex-exercises.