Do you remember how flexible you were as a young child? You were probably able to sit on the floor and play for hours on end with your legs pointing in a number of really interesting directions. We used to be so flexible! What happened? I am sure you can relate with feeling stiff, unable to jump up when having sat on the floor or sofa for an extended period of time. As we get older, our flexibility clearly decreases and impacts our ability to move about comfortably and without pain.
But we have lost more than flexibility. Many of us come to terms with a number of very debilitating conditions, such as arthritis, rheumatoid and low back pain. The typical treatment includes medication and the natural reactions to such conditions is moving less (which is actually a bad idea!) to avoid the excrutiating pains. Neither of these fix the problem.
Is it possible that there is an alternative way of improving or even preventing the terrible stiffness and many joint conditions and joint diseases? I boldly say: YES! The answer is the neglected fitness factor: flexibility fitness.
Being physically fit means more than just walking or riding your bike? It means more than going to the gym and lifting weights. Physical fitness is a term that actually encompasses five essential components:
- Cardiovascular endurance
- Muscular strength
- Muscular endurance
- Body Composition
Flexibility tends to be especially neglected by the majority of people—even those who may focus strongly on the other fitness areas. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, flexibility refers to the ability to move a joint through its complete range of motion. Flexiblity is a highly adaptable fitness component and you can benefit from it at any point in life, even if you get a late start with it. Flexible joints are vital for the maintenance of pain-free and independent movement.
There are three components that affect your flexibility: your joint structure, your muscle elasticity and length, and your nervous system. You have no control over your joint structure as heredity plays a part in that; however, you can have impact on the other two components through flexibility training. It is important to understand that flexibility fitness is joint specific, meaning that you must work on all major joints, not just a few, to reap the benefits of total flexibility.
There are two types of flexibility movements:
Static flexibility, which is the ability to hold a stretch in an extended position at one end in a particular joint’s range of motion.
Dynamic flexibility, which is the ability to move a joint through a full range of movement with no or little resistance.
Both types of flexibility are important and necessary to become “flexibly fit”. Dynamic flexibility is important for our daily activities and for playing sports as these require movement through full ranges of motion (for example: the golf swing). Static flexibility, on the other hand, is the type of method preferred for flexibility training purposes to increase one’s flexibility.
One of the biggest controversies within the fitness world is when one should practice flexibilty fitness. For many years, it was believed that one must stretch prior to any sort of moderate or vigorous activity and this is often still practiced in schools and athletic teams. However, research continuously shows, that actually one does not reap any significant benefits from stretching prior to being active. In fact, for athletes, many injuries have been tied to pre-event stretching.
The key is to allow your muscles to be warmed-up before embarking on any sort of flexibility training. This could be a short cardiovascular workout of ten minutes of walking or biking. Once your muscles have been warmed up, your body is ready to begin a static flexibility training routine. A sample beginning fitness plan to improve flexibility could look like this:
Frequencey: Three days per week
Intensity: Stretch to the point of mild discomfort, not pain
Time: Hold stretches for 20 – 30 seconds and perform them two – three times for the same area
Type: Static stretching exercises that focus on the major joints (stretch slowly and do not bounce)
Ideally, flexibility fitness should be included five to seven days a week for all major joints. But as with all fitness components: something is better than nothing! Fitness is powerful and can significantly improve your quality and quantity of life. The benefits of flexibility fitness include:
- Better joint health
- Prevention of low-back pain and injuries
- Relief of aches and pains
- Relief of muscle cramps
- Improved body position
- Maintenance of good posture and balance
- Relaxation and stress relief
Improving your flexibility through stretching may also be your neglected fitness factor, which could make even your daily tasks such as turning, bending down and lifting so much easier and less strenuous. No matter what age, ability level or current fitness status, you can benefit from incorporating some basic flexibility fitness into your daily life.
ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 6th Edition. Franklin. B.A. (Editor). Philadelphia. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2000.
Fahey, T. D., Insel, P. M., & Walton, T. R. (2009). Fit & well – core concepts and labs in physical fitness and wellness (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.