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How to make your body more flexible with these exercises and tips
Our ancestors needed speed and flexibility to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Today, 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?
What’s more, as we age, certain changes take place in our fascia or connective tissue which can reduce your flexibility and suppleness. This article is your simple guide to some of the best mobility and flexibility exercises you can do to stay supple and flexible as you get older. We’ll also touch on some flexibility training methods that may help.
The good news is that you can achieve flexibility 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.
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.
As Alia explains,
“If the fascia surrounding our muscles becomes tight or stiff, it can restrict the healthy movement of our bodies. 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 which can also have an impact on our fascia. However, this tissue 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.
“With more flexibility – and often less pain – comes a greater ability to build muscle and improve your body composition.”
Why flexibility matters: we explain
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.
How do we use flexibility in everyday life?
You’d be surprised how much easier your day-to-day activities become when you are more flexible. In fact, with consistent focus on your flexibility, you may:
- find it easier to do tasks around the house like bending, reaching or stooping
- move more freely when you’re playing with the kids or throwing a ball for the dog
- experience fewer aches and pains in your body
- improve at your favourite sport and exercise e.g. a better golf swing or deeper yoga pose (!).
Ultimately, you’ll feel a greater sense of wellbeing.
The benefits of flexibility training
Having greater flexibility through consistent training is the first step towards greater physical wellbeing. As an exercise physiologist, Alia rates flexibility as a critical first step.
“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. 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 you train your muscles, the more flexible you will become and the more likely it is that you’ll feel comfortable engaging in physical activity. You won’t feel like making excuses anymore! In fact, gentle exercising and stretching may stop being ‘a chore’ once you see the results of your consistent efforts.
Flexibility exercises for beginners
You don’t need to be super fit or even an athlete to begin improving your flexibility today. These 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 is a bit of mouthful, but they’re all super simple stretches that get results.
1. 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. You can pick up a cheap one from K-Mart or Big W. Expect to pay anything from $10-$30. 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.
Alia shows you some head and neck self-massage techniques in this video:
“You can start off slow and steady and still enjoy the benefits with flexibility exercises for beginners.”
2. Dynamic stretching
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.
3. Static stretching
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.
To make the most of your flexibility exercises, take a look at these top tips for safe stretching.
How to check your flexibility before you start
To see how you’ve improved, you can take a few simple tests today to check your flexibility in different parts of your body. You can record your results and then repeat these tests 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.
“With consistent flexibility training, you can improve your strength and mobility and feel less of those aches and pains.”
For successful flexibility exercises, safety must come first
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 beginning any new physical stretching routines.
What is flexibility training?
This training is based on a series of low-intensity exercises that can help you increase the range of motion in a group of joints or, just one. The exercises can also help strengthen your stability muscles making you stronger on your feet and less likely to fall because of a muscle imbalance. Take a look at the video below for a routine you can try at home.
Perhaps you can pop this stretching routine into your schedule at least three times a week. Although, a daily stretching routine is more likely to give you the best results in the long term.
Your flexibility exercise tip
Try setting an interval timer on your device for 20 seconds of stretching and 10 seconds of rest to make sure you’re stretching enough 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.
The fruits of your flexibility training – after four weeks!
If you’ve been consistent with your flexibility exercises, you’ll be surprised at how much more supple your body can feel in a relatively short period of time.
A regular stretching routine, performed at least three times a week over four weeks can set you on the way to greater flexibility. You can test how much you’ve improved by using the methods we’ve outlined in this article.
Remember, 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 young family members or even strolling along the beach.
Ultimately, better flexibility can go a long way in improving your health and wellbeing today and for many years to come.
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.
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