Flexibility is an area of fitness that is often ignored. We leave it to the end of the workout and then skip it if time is short. But good flexibility is more important than you might think. It becomes more important as you get older to maintain or to improve your flexibility.
Are you flexible? I admit that I am not flexible despite the fact that I stretch fairly often. I can’t even begin to imagine the basket case I would be if I didn’t stretch as much as I do.
What is flexibility?
Flexibility is defined as “the quality of bending without breaking”. This applies to a tree branch and it applies to your body. When we talk about flexibility of the joints we mean the range of motion of the joints. If you are flexible you have a greater range of motion than someone who is not flexible. This range of motion is controlled by muscles, ligaments and tendons.
Why you might not be flexible
As we get older our muscles, ligaments and tendons become tighter. Muscles in different areas of the body can tighten up because they are chronically shortened. An example of this is the hip flexors. If you spend a lot of time sitting, then these shorten because they are always is a shorter position.
If you don’t use your muscles then they will become less flexible. Being active will help to improve flexibility because the muscles are more often moved through the range of motion.
Genetics plays a role in flexibility as well. Some people are born with joints that just seem to be more flexible. However, if you don’t use they joints and work to maintain the flexibility it will still decrease with age.
What are the benefits of flexibility?
Being flexible has many benefits. Here are some:
- If you are flexible you will likely have fewer injuries especially if you are active. Chances are that over the years you have not only become less flexible, but have developed imbalances (tight muscles in one area, weak in another). When you then do activities, these imbalances can lead to injuries.
- You are stronger when you are more flexible. This is because the muscle is able to operate over the full range of motion.
- You have better posture when you are flexible. The hamstrings and hip flexors are commonly tight. This causes you to stand with the hips not level. Tight neck, shoulder and chest muscles cause a hunched forward posture.
- You are less likely to succumb to back pain when you are flexible. The inflexibility that leads to poor posture also can lead to back pain.
Having looser muscles can actually make you feel more relaxed. We often carry mental tightness in our muscles, in areas like the shoulders, neck and even the hips. By stretching and releasing this tightness, it also releases the mental tension as well.
How can you get more flexible?
The easiest way to improve your flexibility is with static stretching. Static stretching involves holding a stretch in a position for about 20 to 30 seconds. The position should be slightly challenging, but should not cause pain. This is a great way to end your workout and is a good way for beginners to stretch. However, you may find that you need to repeat some stretches multiple times and even multiple times per day in order to actually improve flexibility.
Dynamic stretching involves moving through the complete range of motion of the muscle or muscle group. This is not the bouncing that you may remember from gym class. You do this about 10 times per movement. Dynamic stretching is a better choice for stretching before a workout.
Yoga classes can improve your flexibility and have many other benefits. In yoga many of the poses will increase flexibility and overall relaxation. You don’t have to be flexible to start yoga. Choose a beginner class and you will find there are options for you.
Foam rolling is another option that may increase flexibility. It involves rolling the tight muscle with a foam tube. It is a type of self massage. Scientists do not actually know how foam rolling works and studies on how it improves flexibility are inconclusive. Many people swear by it and you may want to add it to your mobility routine.
Resistance training can also help to increase flexibility. In fact recent research shows it might be as good or maybe even better than static stretching.
If you have been ignoring stretching, then now is a good time to start. Add some light stretching in the morning, or after a workout. Go to a yoga class or just start getting more active.