Experts in sports medicine consider flexibility to be "the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, pain-free range of motion."
Strength-training and aerobic exercises are of course a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle, but the importance of flexibility and mobility shouldn't be overlooked. Both are not only helpful for reducing aches and discomfort but are also important for overall musculoskeletal health and injury prevention, especially as we get older.
How Flexibility and Mobility Reduce Health Risks
A lack of stretching, especially when combined with either too much or too little physical activity, is a recipe for disaster when it comes to maintaining functionality.
How come? Mobility exercises help provide soft tissues, such as those that form cartilage, joints, and ligaments, with adequate blood supply and nutrients. Being agile and active also helps to increase the release of synovial joint fluid which supports fluid motion, and improves coordination, and protects against falls.
If you're currently not as flexible as you'd like to be — perhaps because of the loss of normal joint function due to an injury, a sedentary lifestyle, or conditions such as osteoarthritis — then incorporating stretching into your routine can be very helpful for improving your range of motion.
Here are some of the many benefits of maintaining a regular stretching routine:
Reduces day-to-day pain, tightness, and aches by preventing shortening of connective tissues (exercise contracts the muscles which shortens them while stretching lengthens them)
Increases blood flow and vascular health
Increased neuromuscular coordination
Helps with exercise performance and recovery, often leading to more efficient workouts and less downtime needed afterward
Improves elasticity and functioning of muscles, and helps return muscles to their natural resting state following activity
Modifies blood pooling by promoting circulation
Helps to reduce falls and slips by improving stabilization
Reduces risk for pulling or tearing muscles or other tissues and experiencing injuries due to compensations
How To Improve Flexibility By Stretching
Stretching helps to increase the mobility of the soft tissues that surround joints. These soft tissues include those found in the muscles, ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, and even the skin.
The goal of an effective stretching routine should be to stretch the major tissues and muscle groups throughout the body, including the hamstrings, lower back, Illiotibia band (IT band), knees, hips, and shoulders.
Here are tips and guidelines for getting the most benefits from stretching:
Incorporate stretching into your regular training routine, such as by consistently stretching after you exercise. Stretching before exercise is generally not recommended, however dynamic workout movements like leg and arm swings can be beneficial. Stretching after workouts is safer because muscles are warmed up and relaxed which helps with range of motion.
Plan to stretch for about 5 to 10 minutes post-workout. It's also a good time to practice continuous stretching, such as in a yoga class, for 20 or more minutes several times per week ideally, which can really help to decrease inflexibility.
Maintain each stretch for 30 seconds to begin. Once you feel more comfortable in stretches, hold them for up to 1-2 minutes while breathing continuously which should help you get deeper into stretches.
"Static stretching" is recommended by most orthopedists. This involves gradually stretching through a muscle’s full range of motion slowly until you feel resistance or mild pulling, but not pain. Overall, approach stretching gently and consistently rather than aggressively.
What are the best stretches for beginners that can help address tightness throughout the body? Focus on these stretches which address the largest joints in your body before moving on to more advanced or targeted stretches: a range
Standing forward-folds for your hamstrings (aiming to touch the ground with your hands). Involve your shoulders by clasping your hands behind you and reaching them up and over while folding.
Cat-cow stretches, for your back, neck, and torso
Downward-dog, or "puppy pose" with your knees down, for your back, shoulders, and hamstrings.
Seated bent knee stretches for your hips, back, glutes. Or while laying down, bring one bent knee into your chest at a time.
Lunges, and lunge twists, for your legs, hips, back, and obliques.
Tricep stretches, reaching your arms up and over to your back while holding your elbow.
Seated butterfly stretches for your glutes and inner thighs.
Side bend stretches for your obliques, hips, and shoulders.
Standing quad stretches, holding your foot behind you with a bent knee.
Laying down "sphinx stretch" for your chest and lower back, as you lift your chest up and away from the floor while laying on your stomach.
Following along with beginner programs on Youtube is another great option. For example, programs such as MadFit and those offered by physiotherapists such as Michelle Kenway are helpful for learning stretches for achy knees, hips, and more.
Keep in mind that gaining flexibility takes time, consistency and dedication, so stick with it. You can expect it to take several weeks of consistent, daily stretching before you'll notice real improvements, but once your body adjusts, it should be much easier to maintain your new abilities.