The importance of flexibility
Our ancestors needed speed and flexibility to spring into action at a moment’s notice. We no longer face the stress of having to outrun man-eating tigers - which is just as well for those of us who can’t even run for a bus - but our lives are busy and stressful in other ways, and that’s not good news. Did you know that chronic stress can reduce physical mobility and flexibility?
We spoke to Health Hub Wellness Consultant and exercise physiologist Alia Jaghbir to find out why staying flexible matters, and how stretching can help us achieve it.
A word about fascia first
Stiff joints or a pain in the neck might be an indication of muscular tension, but it could also be a sign of tightness in the fascia.
Fascia is the term used to describe the connective tissue that surrounds our body parts and holds our organs, blood vessels, bones and muscles in place. These layers of connective tissue help us twist, bend and move without pain. Fascia has nerves that make it highly sensitive and it’s designed to stretch as we move.
You can find out more about fascia here.
‘If the fascia surrounding our muscles becomes tight or stiff, it can restrict the healthy movement of our bodies,’ Alia explains. ‘Fascia can tighten if we don’t get enough physical activity and if we spend too much time sitting down.’
Too much sitting is a common complaint of our modern sedentary lifestyles, and as well as the impact on our fascia it carries significant health risks.
Fascia can also thicken and tighten if we overuse our muscles then don’t allow them to rest. Another culprit is stress.
“Our busy, fast lives can lead to chronic stress and tension. This exacerbates poor posture and it can also make fascia tighter. Tight fascia can impede the nervous system, which in turn exacerbates stiffness and lack of mobility.’
That’s why staying flexible can help in many ways.
Why flexibility matters
Flexibility brings multiple benefits:
- Helps maintain appropriate muscle length and avoid muscle shortening
- Helps improve muscular weaknesses
- Reduces the risk of injury
- Improves posture and the ability to move
- Helps relieve stress and reduce risk of lower back pain
- Increases the tendons’ ability to absorb energy, which decreases the chance of injury
As we age, certain changes take place in our fascia or connective tissue. Adhesions and calcium deposits increase, and so does the level of fragmentation and dehydration. Changes in the chemical structure of the tissue and a higher collagen content can also reduce flexibility and suppleness.
The good news is that flexibility can be achieved at any age. It may take longer, and you may have to work a little harder if you are inflexible or an older adult, but we can all improve our flexibility.
Flexibility is the first step towards greater physical wellbeing
As an exercise physiologist, Alia rates flexibility as a critical first step to achieving greater physical wellbeing.
‘Many of the aches and pains we feel are the result of limited flexibility and mobility. This lack of flexibility can make exercise increasingly painful and, at times, even dangerous,’ says Alia. ‘Once you improve your flexibility, you can increase your mobility, enjoy greater benefit from the exercise you do and you’re less likely to injure yourself.’
The more flexible you are, the more likely it is that you’ll feel comfortable engaging in physical activity, which is one of the keys to greater health and wellbeing. If you need a reminder of the benefits of physical fitness, check out this recent article.
Three simple techniques
Three simple stretching techniques are all you need to start enjoying greater flexibility in just four weeks.
- Self-myofascial release (SMR)
- Dynamic stretching.
- Static stretching
The first one sounds a bit of mouthful, but these are super simple stretches, and they get results.
Self-myofascial release (SMR)
SMR works by placing pressure on a muscle and rolling at the pressure point. That’s it. Ideally, you would use a foam roller, and you can buy them cheaply from K-Mart or Big W (expect to pay anything from ten to thirty dollars). You could also use tennis balls or cricket balls to release pressure points.
SMR can release chronic muscular tension by activating tiny sensing mechanisms at the point where the muscles and tendons join. When pressed, these sensors stimulate the muscle spindles to relax the muscle. The result is a release of adhesions (the places where fascia gets sticky or knotty) and an increase in blood flow, helping to improve the quality of the tissue.
Rolling pin alternative
If you don’t have a foam roller, use a rolling pin to knead out tight spots. It’s not as gentle as a foam roller, so take care. Press until you can feel the muscle responding and stop if you feel any sharp pain.
Focus on your quadriceps, hamstrings, lower leg, sore spots on your neck and even under your feet.
SMR works best when coupled with dynamic and static stretching.
Dynamic stretching involves actively moving a joint through its full range of movement without any relaxation or holding of a position. Dynamic stretching can increase blood flow, oxygen and body temperature to help prepare your muscles for exercise, so it’s ideal when included as part of a warm-up routine.
Static stretching involves holding a position with some level of mild discomfort for at least 15-20 seconds. This form of stretching is very effective in increasing the range of movement in a joint and is most productive after exercise, when the goal is to increase flexibility and cool down.
Check these top tips for safe stretching.
Check your flexibility before you start
Take a few simple tests to check your flexibility in different parts of your body. Record the results and check again at the end of four weeks.
Knee to wall test
- Find a wall and stand facing it
- Place the toes of your right leg against the wall, and take half a step back with your left leg
- Push your right knee forwards to touch the wall, checking you’re keeping your hips facing forwards
- If you’re able to do this easily, move your foot away from the wall 1-2cm and repeat trying to touch the knee to the wall
- Repeat until you’re unable to touch the wall with your knee
- Record the maximum distance you’re able to achieve
- Repeat with the other leg
Seated forward bend for lower back and hamstring flexibility
- Sit down on the ground, legs extended, and feet flexed
- Place your left hand over your right hand and lean forward from the hips
- Reach as far forward as you can
- Ask someone to measure the distance between your middle finger and toes.
Shoulder flexibility test
- Raise your right arm straight up over your head.
- Bend your right elbow. Let your right palm rest on the back of your neck with your fingers pointing down toward your feet.
- Using your left hand, reach up behind your back and rest the back of your hand on your spine (your palm should be facing away from your body).
- Without straining, slide your right hand down your neck and your left hand up your spine (your hands should be moving toward each other).
- Once you have reached as far as you can, ask someone to measure the distance between your fingers.
Seated thoracic rotation
- Begin in a seated position with knees and feet together, body in an upright and erect posture and arms crossed over the chest supporting a dowel/stick across the shoulders
- Slowly rotate your body both to the right and to the left as far as possible. See if you can rotate past the 45-degree range on both sides.
If you’re new to stretching, start slow and stay safe. You should only ever experience mild discomfort. Don’t push yourself above a maximum discomfort level of five out of 10 and listen to what your body tells you. Stop immediately if you feel any sharp pain. If you have any underlying health issues, check with your GP or health professional before undertaking any new physical stretching routines.
We suggest you perform this stretching routine at least three times a week, however it’s believed that daily stretching brings the greatest benefits.
It’s worth setting an interval timer on your device for 20 seconds of stretching and 10 seconds of rest to ensure you are stretching sufficiently to lengthen the muscle and connective tissue.
Chronically tight muscles can be sensitive to cold, so you might want to perform the routine after a hot shower. You could also cut the routine in half, dividing it into two sessions, one in the morning and afternoon or evening.
Measure the benefits after four weeks
A regular stretching routine, performed at least three times a week over four weeks, should set you on the way to restoring greater flexibility. Check your flexibility at the end of four weeks and see how much you’ve improved.
With more flexibility (and often less pain) comes a greater ability to build muscle and improve body composition.
When you feel better in your body you can start enjoying some of the things you might have put off, like yoga, dancing, hiking, playing with children and grandchildren or strolling along the sand at the beach.
Greater flexibility helps you enjoy the many physical activities that can improve your health and wellbeing.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
Nicholas Ratamess 2012,‘ACSM’s Foundations of Strength Training and Conditioning’, Pages 165-189, by American College of Sports Medicine.
Barnes, M.F., (1997) The basic science of myofascial release: morphologic change in connective tissue
Reilly, M. (2013) Your Primal Body
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