When you think of flexibility, the image most associated with is something akin to the Presidents Challenge fitness test sit and reach. For most of us, our toes seem VERY far away. We think “I’m just not flexible” or “I could be flexible if I ever felt like going to yoga classes”, and we leave it at that. What we don’t realize is the importance of flexibility not only in our everyday lives, but for our long term health (why do you think they call a dead person a stiff?).
Forget about being flexible and start aiming for optimal range of motion and muscle balance…
Just like many things, flexibility is best in moderation. You want some balance in your flexibility. Think about your knees. If I have too much flexibility in the muscles, tendons and ligaments surrounding my knee joint, I may not have the stability I need to hold the joint in place – this can lead to injury (think torn ligaments). Like wise, if I don’t have enough flexibility in some muscle groups (my calves are extremely tight), then I also put myself at risk of injury (think plantar fasciitis). So instead of trying to be flexible, I am trying to achieve (1) optimal range of motion or movement of a muscle group through the range that is most conducive to producing force most efficiently and (2) muscle balance conducive to holding my skeletal system in the alignment (posture) most conducive to injury-free functional movement.
Your body WANTS to move…
Movement does MANY things for our bodies. Forget about the secondary health benefit of weight loss associated with extra calorie burn and the tertiary health benefits of being within a healthy BMI (a measure of body weight compared to height) – like reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Short term, the physical act of movement can both prevent and relieve muscle soreness; mid-term, (through balanced exercise) it can correct and improve posture; and long term, the physical act of movement prevents physical decay by improving both bone density and joint lubrication – two things that are vital to your longevity. As we age, we lose bone density – one in five patients who suffer from an osteoporotic hip fracture dying within one year. That means we need to work on (1) balance – so we don’t fall in the first place and (2) bone density – because accidents happen. Weight bearing exercises (like lifting weights) improve bone density, as does the simple act of walking. A second problem associated with lack of movement is lack of properly distributed joint fluid. When we stay in the same position for long periods of time (like when you’re sitting at your computer all day) the joint fluid pools in the joint (if I have a cup of water and I tip the cup, the water stays level to the ground not level to the cup). When you finally move, you can have cartilage that rubs on cartilage (places where the fluid hasn’t moved back to yet). Pay attention to your knees next time you are seated for a while – how do they first react to your movement? As we age, the problem is compounded by loss of viscosity in the fluid itself. Ultimately, stiffness can cause discomfort and even pain when we move – we end up moving less because it hurts and our stiffness and pain increases.
Now you know… so what are you going to DO…
You better not have answered that question with “nothing”. You may not become a regular yoga-goer or even find yourself getting up 30 minutes earlier in the morning to get in a good stretch. You may not be ready for this kind of change – the reason you’re not ready for it is probably because you don’t see immediate effects. Developing proper range of motion can take time and you may even be engaging in activities that are counterintuitive to range of motion development (sitting for extended periods of time/slouching towards a computer). I used to stretch very little (as did all my teammates in both high school and college), it wasn’t until I developed a case of plantar fasciitis that I started learning about stretching and range of motion and how it could not only make me (1) more comfortable, but (2) actually IMPROVE my athletic performance (because proper muscle balance will help you to generate more power and move more efficiently!).
You don’t have to quit your job and become a yoga instructor…
Not being in pain is a great motivator, but improving your athletic performance can also have great appeal. Whether you love running or playing a sport, developing optimal range of motion can (1) help you avoid injuries so that you can do what you love for longer and perhaps even more often and (2) improve your performance, so that you can be a more effective and efficient runner or player.
When you workout, this translates into three steps:
- Make dynamic movements part of your warm-up. Activities like skipping, lunging and leg swings can help you to develop greater range of motion. They also prepare the body for activity by increasing blood flow and muscle elasticity.
- Use a foam roller. Even if you’re flexible, knots can develop in your connective tissue. Knots are places where scar tissue forms. The fascia that covers your muscles like a sheath can stick to the muscle, which decreases range of motion. Foam rolling relieves knots and allows for greater extensibility. You can foam roll before working out or after working out.
- Use static stretches to release overly tight muscles. If you do have muscle imbalances, a combination of strength training and static stretches can help you to regain muscle balance.
- Taking the time to move throughout the day. Walk around. Set an egg timer (or use an online timer or your smart phone) to let you know when you’ve been sitting for a certain amount of time and take a small break to stand or walk around.